What began as two acts of antisemitic vandalism led to a supportive community gathering at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood Monday evening.

About 1,000 people, some carrying Israeli flags or “United against Antisemitism” signs, packed the sanctuary and overflowed into a nearby room.

“We are not worried that bad things are going to happen,” said Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky. “Our biggest concern is that bad things are going to happen and that no one else will care. As we look around at this room, we know that is not the case.”

Christian and Muslim clergy came to support the Jewish congregation, as well as elected officials.

“We truly live our motto of ‘Our house, your home,’” said TBHBE President Josh Kohn. Since he got a phone call telling him about the swastika painted on their sign, he’s had dozens of phone calls. “We’ve all experienced a wide range of emotions. Many of us are angry. Many of us are sad. Many are confused and frustrated at the kind of world we live in…Many of us are scared, as well, worried that minor physical damage could lead to much more.”

On a recent visit to Israel, he discovered that the Israelis he talked to were optimistic. One survivor of the brutal Hamas Oct. 7 attack told him, “We will dance again.”

The synagogue hosted the Overbrook Presbyterian Church in the wake of a fire and the pastor, the Rev. Adam Hearlson, spoke.

“We are here as neighbors, as people bound by the common commandment to love your neighbor…We stand with you in this time,” he said.  “We have a common cause of peace and love and joy, to sing together, to live together.”

Witkovsky said the swastika was meant to “make us afraid.”

“The swastika may have been painted on our property, but it hurts the entire community. It hurts to see the symbol, which, for many of us, has existed only on old photos from a horrible time…We worry, maybe those times are upon us again,” said Witkovsky.  There is a feeling “in the pit of our stomachs” that “something is happening to the Jewish people in our country.”

“Antisemitic acts have been increasing across our country for years. We worry we’re no longer welcome in this land,” he said. But after two generations “of the most peace and prosperity our people have known anywhere, we worry that this swastika, sprayed on a banner, means we’re doomed to go back to a world of swastikas again.”

“We can’t allow the terrible thing this stands for back into our world,” said Witkovsky. But the world is now different from that of “those grainy photographs.” Jews no longer fear the government, and “non-Jews around us have reached out,” he said.

He urged the audience to “fight hatred in all of its forms wherever it’s found.”

“Know you have an ally in us, and we’re thankful to have an ally in you,” he said.

“To the Jews who are here in the room, what is different from past eras of antisemitism? Today, ultimately, each person here, by dint of being alive in this time and this place, each of you has more power and agency in your lives than the rabbis of the past ever imagined was possible,” said Witkovsky. “Each of us has a phenomenal ability to stand up for ourselves, thank God. And we bear the responsibility of that power, to stand up when someone says something, when someone paints something, when someone does something.”

“There is antisemitism around us, to be sure, and it seems to be getting worse or bolder,” he said. “But it is up to us to use the resources we have to stand up for ourselves and each other.”

Ranita Thomas, a TBHBE vice president, told DVJournal she believes there has always been antisemitism, but Oct. 7 and the ensuing war against Hamas have allowed “people to be overt.”

“People are using Oct. 7 as permission to be more antisemitic,” she said. “A lot  of people who have jumped on the Free Palestine bandwagon are truly antisemitic. They feel it’s justified to say what they’re saying now.”

Vandalized sign at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El.

Adam Ehrlich, also a TBHBE vice president, told DVJournal, “I think it feels more visceral. It feels like large parts of the world are against us. If something like this (terror attack) happened anywhere else, the world would be rallying around a lot more.”

Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia President Michael Balaban attended the gathering at TBHBE.

The federation “strongly condemns the disturbing antisemitic vandalism that occurred at Temple Beth Hillel – Beth El (Sunday). As antisemitism continues to rise nationally and locally, we must work together as a community to make it clear that hate has no place here. We stand with Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El as they address this vandalism while continuing their critical work to unify the Wynnewood Jewish community through prayer, inclusion, and love.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro on X: This is the second message I’ve written like this in as many days. It’s two too many. Antisemitism and the vandalism of a house of worship of any kind have no place in this Commonwealth. I’ve spoken to Rabbi Witkovsky and told him we stand with his wonderful congregation and against hate. PSP is coordinating with our law enforcement partners to apprehend the person(s) responsible. These acts of hate will never change the fact that no matter what you look like, where you come from, who you love, or who you do and don’t pray to, you belong here in Pennsylvania.”

Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) said on X: “Sickened to see this hateful desecration of a synagogue — and on Easter no less. Antisemitism has no place in Montco or this country. No one should be using nazi symbols in 2024. We must find the people responsible and hold them accountable for this dangerous display of hate.”

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