The 15 families belonging to the Norwich Jewish Center, a dwindling, mostly elderly congregation in central New York, expected to celebrate Passover with a community seder inside their synagogue, as they do every year.
They imagined a relatively small event, led by their part-time spiritual leader, Rabbi Dawn Rose, and a cozy, heimishe atmosphere, typical of such a tiny congregation in such a rural town. And, indeed, their plans for the event advanced to the point where Leslie Dopkeen, the congregation’s president, scheduled an April 9 meeting at the synagogue with the catering team.
But as she arrived at the synagogue that day, Dopkeen discovered a scene that horrified her as well as the congregation’s other members and changed their plans. Sometime in the previous four days since the synagogue had been last visited by any of its members, vandals had broken into the three-story building, destroying much of what lay in their path.
The Norwich Jewish Center wasn’t the only congregation last week to suffer trying times. So, too, did the Mohegan Park Jewish Center, a seasonal congregation in the Mohegan Lake section of Yorktown, in northern Westchester. Moreover, though clearly unrelated, the two incidents shared eerily similar details, such as the number of suspects and their ages.
Also similar in each case is how members of the broader community, including Christians and Muslims, expressed their solidarity with local Jews — and in no uncertain terms. In Norwich, an economically depressed town of 7,600, those expressions included an interfaith service at an Episcopal church, which is also hosting the congregation’s annual seder this Sunday, on the second night of Passover. And in bucolic Yorktown the leaders of a local mosque offered the use of their building, if needed, for Jewish prayer services.
Discussing the vandalism in Norwich, Dopkeen, 63, said the vandals “went through the whole building.” In doing so, they smashed the synagogue’s piano and stained-glass windows, threw prayer books and kipot on the sanctuary floor, splashed paint on the floor and damaged the staircase, doors and light fixtures. They also scrawled anti-Semitic profanity on a blackboard — “F–k the Jews, nigga” — said Dopkeen, who believes that some of the evidence also points to attempted arson.
“The police said they never saw anything like it,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this week.
The episode couldn’t have been more dispiriting to a congregation that has struggled in recent years to stay solvent. Estimates regarding the amount of damage are in the tens of thousands of dollars, leading to fears that last week’s single act of destruction could sink the congregation. There’s no estimate, though, regarding damage to the psyches of individual members and to their collective sense of well-being, especially in a congregation once largely composed of refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
In Yorktown, the vandalism was interrupted by a Jewish neighbor of the congregation, who witnessed suspicious activity while walking his dog April 10 and called police on his cell phone. The next call went to Roger Kahn, president of the Mohegan Lake Jewish Center, who rushed to Yorktown from his home in Riverdale to survey the damage. The vandals there destroyed a model Torah, a menorah and memorial plaques; splattered white paint around the sanctuary and painted a swastika on one wall, with the word “party” written below it.
Both the Yorktown and Norwich incidents follow a recent rise in anti-Semitic acts recorded by the Anti-Defamation League. In the organization’s 2007 audit, the ADL said that such acts jumped 23 percent in New York State, while figures for the rest of the nation continued to decline. Calling the rise “dramatic,” the ADL said that last year’s 351 incidents, most of them in New York City and Long Island, included threats, vandalism, harassment and other acts of hatred.
The reasons for the increase, especially in one of the world’s most diverse cities, continue to elude ADL officials, said Joel Levy, the agency’s regional director. “I’ve been struggling with why we’ve seen the rise, and I don’t know the answer.”
Meanwhile, in each of last week’s cases, local police have made arrests.
Acting Saturday, police in Norwich charged three boys, ages 13 and 14, in connection with that town’s incident. Norwich Police Chief Joe Angelino told the Jewish Week that the episode meets the criteria for a hate crime. But Richard Breslin, the attorney for Chenango County responsible for prosecuting juveniles, declined to comment Monday on whether the charges would be upgraded to hate crimes.
Soon after their arrest, the three teens were released to the care of their parents, a move that mystifies Dopkeen. Angelino said his detectives wanted to detain the youngsters but that the nearest juvenile detention facility, two hours away, was closed during the weekend for intake.
In Westchester, police have arrested three teenage girls: Barbara Nokaj, 18, of Yorktown; Michelle Bushell, 17, of Cortland; and an unidentified 15-year-old. All have been charged with third-degree burglary and, as of Tuesday, were being held at the Westchester County Jail.
While the teens are being held, Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is investigating whether the three should be charged with hate crimes, a spokesman for her office said Tuesday. Kahn, the congregational president, said he heard “unofficially” that all three girls confessed to the crime.
While heartened by the arrests, Jewish leaders of both communities are floored by the support they have received from friends, neighbors and colleagues.
Residents of Norwich and surrounding towns and counties have responded to the crime in their area as if it involved their own house of worship, Dopkeen said.
“People around here are very upset by this,” said Dopkeen, a former sociology professor who, with her husband, owns a medical-imaging business. Several people have walked into the synagogue, sight unseen, handing cash or checks to the congregation’s president, while others have called the shul to express their sorrow. Still others have sent letters to the area’s daily newspaper, including one writer who called the synagogue “our Jewish center.”
The interfaith services, led mostly by Rabbi Rose last Friday, took place at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, drawing an overflow crowd of 200.
“We had people from Baptist churches and Assembly of God and Lutheran churches,” said Rev. Glenn Mahaffey, Emmanuel’s spiritual leader and a friend of the rabbi. “We even had some of the town’s Islamic families.”
Others attending the service included the mayor of Norwich, Joseph Maiurano, who told the Jewish Week later that he was moved by the turnout. “Out of the hate [connected to last week’s vandalism], there was so much love shown at the prayer service. It overshadowed everything else.”
Support for the Jewish community has been so vocal and widespread, according to leaders in the town, that it may have even played a role in the arrest of the three suspects. One of them, apparently overwhelmed with guilt, confessed the crime to his mother, who then contacted local police, Angelino said. It was that teenager who later implicated the two other suspects.
In Yorktown, Kahn and his wife, Judy, organized a rally Sunday night in front of the Mohegan Park Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation that draws most of its 15 families from the Upper West Side and Riverdale. Among those at the rally were the leaders of other local congregations, Jewish and Christian, and government officials like Delores Scott Brathwaite, director of the county’s Human Rights Commission.
Zead Ramadan, a board member of the Hudson Valley Islamic Community Center, also attended the rally, where he told Kahn that his mosque would be proud to host the synagogue’s prayer services.
In an interview later, Ramadan said he and other members of the mosque view attacks on any congregation as “an attack against every faith or house of worship. We’re all in it together.”
The words sounded similar to those of Rev. Mahaffey, who said that hosting congregants from the Norwich Jewish Center would be “a true honor on our part.” The congregation “is an important part of our community,” said the pastor, adding that Norwich needs that kind of diversity.
For her part, Dopkeen believes this year’s seder is bound to be a special one. “I suspect it’s going to be bigger than it usually is,” she said, “and I think it will be very uplifting.”