When Max Drazdik got together with two friends from Hightstown High School on the night of Jan. 7, 2008, he had no idea that an evening of drinking would turn into a hateful escapade that might have ruined his life.
Now, more the five years later, Drazdik has repented for his role in an obscene and anti-Semitic vandalism rampage, partly through the counseling of Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor.
“I was forced out of arrogant immaturity and learned to develop greater kindness and understanding for those around me,” Drazdik told NJ Jewish News. “I value helping others and being thoughtful and understanding far more than I ever valued the childish thrills of being obscene and offensive.
“I have changed as a person since that night.”
Drazdik and his two friends were home from college on winter break when the students used spray paint to scrawl a swastika and obscenities on a street sign and a guardrail in their hometown of East Windsor.
Then they headed to the nearby village of Roosevelt, a cooperative community founded chiefly by Jews in 1937 and named after President Franklin Roosevelt. On the pedestal of a statue of FDR they scrawled a hammer and sickle, the “f-word” accompanying a star of David, and the word “gay.” They added a comment that Roosevelt “didn’t fix the Great Depression,” and an expletive condemning “GWB” — presumably former President George W. Bush.
But after one of his friends painted a swastika, Drazdik said, “I spoke out against it. I said, ‘No, don’t do that. It is over the line.’”
He told NJJN he proceeded to turn the swastika into an image of a window with a cross in the middle, but, after he left, said Drazdik, “my friends hopped out of the car and painted a big swastika on a pedestal in the center of Hightstown. It was in a visible area so that everyone would see it. It was horrible. I wasn’t there for that, but I was part of the whole process, so I am equally responsible.”
After the attacks, a Wal-Mart employee reported to the police that “these rowdy kids bought spray paint two days prior, so police checked Wal-Mart security tapes a month or two later and found us there,” he explained.
‘I had remorse’
Drazdik returned from George Washington University two months later to face bias crime and disorderly conduct charges. He and his accomplices faced a maximum of five years in prison and fines of up to $15,000. But as first-time offenders, they were accepted into a pre-trial intervention program.
Drazdik chose to perform 75 community service hours at Beth El under the supervision of Rabbi Kornsgold.
“I wanted to do something significant to show I had remorse. I could have picked trash up off the street but I wanted to do something for the Jewish community,” he said.
Unbeknownst to all in the Conservative congregation but board and staff members, Drazdik performed manual labor — changing light bulbs, raking leaves, and sweeping the floors.
“He is a very honorable young man. He was very polite. He was very respectful. He did his work very efficiently,” said the rabbi, who spent several hours in conversation with Drazdik.
“I was really impressed with the young man,” Kornsgold told NJJN in a May 23 phone interview. “We spoke about the Holocaust and why what he did was very, very painful to Jews. I told him my parents were Holocaust survivors and that the victims of the Holocaust weren’t just Jews. We spoke of that as well. We talked about the civil rights movement. And that we are all equal and none of us is better than anyone else.”
Drazdik suggested they were lessons he should have learned growing up in an ethnically diverse community a few blocks from Kornsgold’s synagogue. “I guess it was strange that I would be making Jewish jokes when they were people I would hang out on the weekends and play football with and things like that,” he said.
But when he was with his close friends, “we thought obscenities were fun. We thought doing things that would shock people and be so horribly offensive was entertainment. We would make racist jokes all the time, and we never really thought deeper about why these things are offensive. It’s because they are hurtful and they are horrible. But that never crossed my mind.”
“He wanted to make amends and he looked on his community service as a learning experience. I think if he ever saw anything like what he did being done he would speak up against it,” said the rabbi.
As he reflected on the lessons he learned, Drazdik said “the experience was personal. I had to see the people I had hurt so much. It wasn’t just something I painted on a wall. The swastika is obviously a symbol of oppression and genocide. When Jewish people see it they probably think there are people out there who want to hurt them and discriminate against them.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2011, Drazdik went to work at a website that recruits employees for Atlantic City’s gambling parlors. He has had no contact with his co-defendants.
“The experience taught me not to be an idiot, to think about what I’m doing and the implications of my actions,” he said. “I can’t just do whatever I want. I need to respect other people in the world around me. I’ve changed from an arrogant moron to somebody who actually cares about people.”