Rabbi Solomon Isaacson was reporting for a New York radio station from the scene of Mount Carmel Cemetery Monday afternoon when the hosts asked a question that startled him: Was this incident a common thing in Philadelphia?
Isaacson moved here from Romania in 1950 and could only think about rare instances when somebody committed similar actions against Jews. The frequency with which he’s seen recent incidents has been unprecedented.
“We never had this before,” Isaacson said. “No such thing in Philadelphia.”
Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League and local Jewish community leaders have traced a rise in anti-Semitic incidents — as well as those against other cultural, racial and religious minorities — back to the latter stages of Donald Trump’s campaign and his election as president. In early November, vandals spray-painted swastikas in South Philly and Fishtown. In December, a rock was thrown through stained-glass windows at Tacony’s Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai and again in January. Somebody then graffitied a door on a new mikvah at Isaacson’s Beth Solomon congregation in Somerton in January. Then came the vandalism at Mount Carmel over the weekend and bomb threats Monday against synagogues in Wynnewood, Wilmington and Cherry Hill.
The incidents have left the Jewish community conflicted. A trademark of the Jewish faith in Philly and all of America has always been its openness. Now Philadelphia Jewish leaders are seeking to maintain that openness while being cognizant of a risk presented by a rise of incidents against their faith.
“We need to balance the issues of security and safety,” said Arlene Fickler, president of Temple Beth Zion Beth Israel, “against making people feel warm and welcomed.”
Fickler just got back from an interfaith mission to Israel. She was there with Christian clergy members, who she said were aware of what had been happening in Philly and were concerned. She’s seen the same in the city — people of all different faiths wanting to do whatever they can to help the affected communities.
But Fickler is also aware of security risks. The Beth Zion Beth Israel congregation, located in Center City, has personnel check every person who enters the building and consistently evaluates its protocol, she said. The synagogue has not made any changes to security in the last several weeks.
“It is disturbing when one goes to another country and finds that the security outside of synagogues and other Jewish sites is frequently very high,” Fickler said, “higher than it is in the United States in many buildings.”
At Klein Life Jewish community center in Somerton, president Andre Krug said they recently hired a security guard “just to be on the safe side.” He noted the Klein Life community isn’t particularly worried and these threats and actions happen from time to time.
“It seems that a lot of attention is paid this time around to these types of things,” Krug said. “Unfortunately the Jewish community operates in the way where we always think about this type of stuff as a possibility, whether there are threats or no threats. We think about the security, and we take it pretty seriously.
“The sad reality is that it’s very hard to protect if, God forbid, somebody wants to do harm.”
At Mount Carmel, dozens of volunteers attempted to assist in the cemetery’s cleanup process. The Building Trades union offered to replace the damaged headstones, and IBEW Local 98 offered to install extra lighting and security cameras for free.
The help is necessary for many Jewish organizations in Philly because they can’t afford to increase security measures.
“There are grants and mechanisms, but they are very, very pricey,” said Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities in Wyncote. “It’s a big challenge. Do you want to put your money toward security cameras or do you want to put your money toward content-filled Jewish celebrations and observances?”
Isaacson’s congregation has been getting extra help from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Seventh District. He said a patrol car drives by routinely throughout the day and night.
The graffiti, which was sprayed on expensive stone from Jerusalem, has mostly come off after city personnel cleaned it. The memory isn’t fading away as easily.
Isaacson considers that incident, the Mount Carmel incident and the others to be anti-Semitic acts, regardless of how they are officially classified and contends they should be viewed that way.
“It’s when we put our heads in the sand [that it continues],” he said. “You have to defeat it right away.”