Hamilton police are investigating after anti-Semitic graffiti was left outside the Beth Jacob Synagogue over the weekend.
Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli said he was in such a rush to get to the synagogue for the 9:15 a.m. service on Saturday morning that he didn’t notice the graffiti until several congregants pointed it out. Once he saw it, he said, it was unmistakable.
Written in bright pink chalk on the pavement at the entrance to the synagogue was the word “Jews”, crossed out within a circle, as well as a swastika.
Police arrived on the scene to document the evidence and while investigating, officers found several more instances of anti-Semitic graffiti around the synagogue, including on the sidewalk of Aberdeen Avenue.
“It’s really disturbing,” said Lavery-Yisraeli. “We have Holocaust survivors in our congregation who recognize that symbol and had to see it again in their later years.
“And it’s difficult for young people also. I have a six-year-old son who was with me, and we had to explain to him what it meant. It was really shocking.”
Although police parked a car overtop of the graffiti in an attempt to block it from other congregants, Lavery-Yisraeli said the whole experience was still jarring and disturbing for congregants who had expected to attend a normal service.
The incident came immediately after a conference to address hate in Hamilton was held at the McMaster Innovation Park on Friday and right before Saturday’s Gandhi Peace Festival in front of Hamilton City Hall.
Lavery-Yisraeli, who was a facilitator during the conference on Friday, said he couldn’t be entirely sure whether the timing of the graffiti was related to those events, or whether it was deliberately done ahead of Yom Kippur, which is considered to be the holiest day of the year in Judaism.
“We don’t want to be hidden,” said Lavery-Yisraeli. “You can see our synagogue from the street and we’re proud to be here. We’re proud to be part of Hamilton and part of this multicultural city.”
Lavery-Yisraeli said they’ve looked at surveillance camera footage from Friday night, which he said shows four males between the ages of 16 and 18 leaving the graffiti at approximately 10:20 p.m.
Despite the disturbing circumstances, Lavery-Yisraeli said he’s grateful police are taking the matter seriously. He’s also grateful for the support from the neighbourhood and the broader community.
“We know that we’re surrounded by a lot of really great and loving people in Hamilton,” said Lavery-Yisraeli, adding that they’ve been receiving hundreds of messages of support. “We know that it’s just a minority of Hamiltonians who have views like this, but one is still too many.”
“Hate is a real danger. It starts what seems to be small, seemingly-benign actions like graffiting a synagogue, but if you don’t do something about it, it quickly can escalate into actual violence and people lose their lives. And we know this because it’s happening around the world in other congregations of different religions as well, not just Jews. So it’s something that has to be taken very seriously and tackled and dealt with.”
Ontario NDP leader and Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath released a statement condemning the racist graffiti, as well as reports of an unknown man allegedly taking photos of worshippers at the Hamilton Downtown Mosque.
“There is no place for hatred, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia in our community,” wrote Horwath. “Acts of vandalism and fear-mongering will not deter us from attending our places of worship and practicing our faiths.”
“We stand with the Jewish and Muslim communities during this difficult time. As a community, we must continue to call out these callous and cowardly acts and work collectively to put an end to hate in Hamilton.”
Lavery-Yisraeli said there will be several community leaders attending Tuesday’s Yom Kippur service as a show of solidarity, including Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Ward 1 Coun. Maureen Wilson, Hamilton Police officers and a pastor from one of the local churches.
A report on hate crimes and hate/bias incidents reported to Hamilton Police in 2018 found that the number of incidents targeting the Jewish community rose by 25 per cent over 2017.
The city will be holding an “in-person public engagement event” at the end of the month to hear from residents about their lived experiences of racism. The results of the Hamilton Anti-Racism Resource Centre survey will also be presented during the event, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the David Braley Health Sciences Centre on Oct. 29.