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Commentary...Stu Rushfield

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In Maryland, police are continuing their investigation of last week's desecration of the B'Nai Shalom of Olney synagogue.

For commentator Stu Rushfield the incident was personal.

Rushfield works for NPR in downtown Washington.

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For years, I’ve been sympathetic whenever I heard news reports of vandalism of an ethnic or religious nature. From a distance, though, it was difficult to really comprehend how the victims of those hate crimes felt...yet that all changed recently, when I learned that my own synagogue had become the victim of an apparent anti-Semitic attack.

Our synagogue, which my in-laws helped to build; where my wife grew up, first as a student, later as a teacher; and where our sons will someday celebrate their passage into Jewish adulthood, was desecrated late on a Sunday night. The black spray-painted graffiti made clear that hatred is, sadly, alive and well.

As parents arrived with their children the next morning for a new week of summer camp, images and words from the days of the Holocaust covered the façade of the building, the sidewalk, parking spaces and light post supports. Mothers and fathers struggled to explain the meaning of swastikas and other images, as well as various phrases, including: “Work Will Set U Free,” the words Jews read above the main gate at Auschwitz as they entered the infamous Nazi death camp.

My first reaction when I heard about the desecration was to hope that the hateful words and symbols would quickly be washed away or covered over, as if to make it like this had never happened. Then I learned that our rabbi, Ari Sunshine, had decided to wait a while before embarking on the daunting task of erasing the troubling words and images. He said that it was important for members of the congregation and the community to see the violation firsthand, in the hopes that by viewing this act of hatred, the community would be drawn closer together. The rabbi felt that by cleaning up the damage before people had a chance to see and feel its effects, a valuable teaching opportunity would be missed.

By mid-afternoon on that Monday, a small army of volunteers had mobilized and began to scrub away the images and words that had brought many to tears. That evening, a service was held at the synagogue. The service- called a minyan- takes place every evening, and Jewish custom dictates that ten Jewish adults be present. Very often, especially in the summertime, it can be difficult to round up ten people for the evening service. But on this night, hundreds of people streamed in, including community leaders, clergy from other nearby places of worship, and people of many different faiths and ethnic backgrounds, offering words of support and solidarity in our time of despair.

From the first notes of the first prayer, it was clear that this was not your average minyan. The voices of the congregation rang out loud and clear, with a pride and determination that seemed to shout out, “We’re right here, we’re proud, and we are not afraid.”

The congregation sang out in a bold, determined way that I don’t remember hearing before, and before long, hundreds of members of the community were clapping, singing and swaying arm in arm, unified and joyful, it seemed, in a way that likely would never have happened only 24 hours before.

Clearly, there are those out there who still hate. But it appears that Rabbi Sunshine was right, and that for our synagogue and our community, this dark act of hatred may, indeed, lead to brighter days to come.

I’m Stu Rushfield

WAMU 88.5

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