Three apparent bias-related incidents in Edison and Highland Park against the Jewish community over the High Holy Days have raised concerns and calls for greater vigilance.
The incidents have resulted in the arrest of two teenagers in separate incidents and greater police presence.
“I think the Jewish community has been asleep at the switch,” said Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Congregation Beth-El in Edison, whose Conservative synagogue was plastered with swastikas hours after Yom Kippur ended Sept. 28. “There have been other incidents and my message to the community is ‘wake up.’ This incident is not isolated.”
The swastika incident came little more than a week after an Edison yeshiva student was jumped in a Rosh Hashana attack, sustaining a concussion and a gash above his eye.
Also, on Yom Kippur evening, Sept. 27, in Highland Park, a 17-year-old leaned out the window of an SUV, gave the Nazi salute, and shouted “Heil Hitler” to three Jews walking home from synagogue.
“These attacks are against all people of good will, and when they direct an attack against the Jewish community it’s really an attack against all of us,” said Lee Livingston, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. “It’s an attack against all minorities.”
Livingston said he believed in particular the swastika attack and the Highland Park incident were “an indication of a lack of education and awareness as to what exactly a swastika means and the pain it inflicts upon our Jewish community.
“I don’t think schools in the area are doing a good job of teaching what this means,” Livingston added. “It’s like saying there’s no such thing as the Holocaust.”
While all local Jewish leaders contacted deplored the incidents and urged greater awareness of bias, some also suggested the acts were aberrations.
Rabbi Eliot Malomet of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth said he reached out to Rosenberg after the graffiti incident. “We are deeply distressed by this. We know that our synagogues are vulnerable to these kinds of acts, and we deplore it.”
Malomet said such events have to be taken in context.
“On one hand, we recognize that anti-Semitism is pernicious,” he said. “But for the most part, we have wonderful relations with our neighbors and law enforcement and there is no question in my mind that while ugly and crude, the [the spray-paint attack] is a very rare incident.”
Rosenberg said after the swastika incident he believed he and his synagogue was targeted “because I speak out.”
Rosenberg had contacted this reporter and authorities about the assault on the yeshiva student.
In 2003, Rosenberg, the son of Holocaust survivors, was pelted with eggs as he and his wife walked to and from synagogue on Shabbat.
Last year, obscene and anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled inside the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva in Edison by an intruder who entered through an unlocked door. At the time, a group of students and a staffer told NJJN they often were taunted with anti-Semitic slurs by neighborhood youths.
The Anti-Defamation League offered a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of the graffiti attack at Beth-El.
“The Anti-Defamation League shares Congregation Beth-El’s shock and indignation over this despicable act, which occurred only hours following Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar,” said Etzion Neuer, director of the ADL’s New Jersey office.
The vandalism was discovered by staff at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, a pre-K-fourth grade Orthodox day school that uses Beth-El’s building.
“It’s just terribly, terribly sad and upsetting to see that in this age people can still feel that kind of hatred,” said Netivot head of school Rivky Ross.
Lt. Joseph Shannon of the Edison police said it has been the department’s policy to increase patrols around Jewish institutions during the holidays. However, in light of the two incidents, those patrols would be increased for the foreseeable future.
“We want everyone to know the police department is taking this very seriously,” said Shannon. “We want all our residents to feel safe when they attend religious services or go to school.”
“We will not tolerate this kind of behavior,” said Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan in a statement. “This office and the police departments in this county will vigorously pursue these kinds of incidents and will arrest those responsible regardless of their age.”
The Middlesex federation also condemned the incidents and lauded the swift actions of law enforcement, ADL, and the prosecutor’s office bias unit, which sent out a memo to all police departments prior to the High Holy Days asking they be extra vigilant in patrolling Jewish institutions.
“We call upon our partners, friends, and neighbors to strongly condemn these acts and to continue working with us to combat prejudice, hate, and ignorance against any group or institution,” said a federation statement.
Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, president of the Metuchen-Edison Greater Interfaith Clergy Association, said she reached out to Rosenberg as soon as she heard of the graffiti attack and collected signatures from area clergy for a letter of solidarity.
Speaking as a “fellow Edison rabbi,” she said, “this terrible act, especially on our High Holy Days, is awful and our thoughts and hearts are with [Rosenberg].
“I am appalled as are my temple members.”
Both Livingston and the chair of federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Philip Cantor, said they believed such acts stemmed from a general lack of civility in American society.
“I think it’s an indication that certain kinds of behavior have become almost acceptable,” said Livingston. “When people stand up at these health care forums and call other people Nazis, there’s just a total lack of respect for anybody now in our society.”
Cantor said he believed because of the close proximity of the incidents “there has to be something behind it and I’m concerned this is not something we can simply ignore.”
Those with information about the Highland Park incident should call police at 732-572-3800; the swastika incident, the Edison Police at 732-248-7540 or Sgt. John Rodriguez of the county bias crimes unit at 732-745-4386; the student attack, Edison Police Sgt. John McElwain at 732-248-7439.