Eight members of the Philadelphia Jewish community, many of whom had driven in from Northeast Philadelphia, arrived at the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Justice. They had their phones locked up in the lobby, went through a metal detector and headed to the 10th floor, where they sat in the gallery. A sign posted there had a list of courtroom rules: No texting, no recording and no reading newspapers, among other prohibitions.
The community members then waited.
They came to the Nov. 8 morning court session to attend the plea hearing of Sheidali Dzhalilov, 24, for charges stemming from an incident in August 2017, when he urinated on the walls and steps of the entryway of Congregation Beth Solomon. Dzhalilov was charged with ethnic intimidation, indecent exposure, institutional vandalism, intentional desecration of public monument, open lewdness, harassment and disorderly conduct.
“The fact that it was done purposefully at a synagogue really brought out emotions. … He was sending out a message,” said Rabbi Akiva Pollack, the executive director of the Russian American Jewish Experience at Congregation Beth Solomon.
The group in the gallery outnumbered the others waiting there for different hearings. All of the men who attended to show support for the synagogue and community center wore kippahs, so their purpose for being there was unmistakable.
“I enjoyed seeing visible symbols of Judaism in the courtroom,” said Asya Zlatina, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia and attended the hearing. “The defendant, the judge, they should be able to put a face on the statistic.”
While they waited, they discussed community events and the hearing itself — its significance and when would it finally start.
Then, three hours late, Judge Vincent Johnson entered the room and the hearing began.
Dzhalilov pleaded guilty to the charges of ethnic intimidation, institutional vandalism and desecration of a place of worship. The other charges were not pursued. The sentence will be determined at a later hearing on Jan. 23. Dzhalilov faces as much as 11 years in prison, as well as up to $22,000 in fines.
Assistant District Attorney Brendan Flynn provided a summary of the incident.
Pollack was in the synagogue working past midnight on Aug. 13 when he noticed movement on the security camera. A man got out of a car, stuck his middle finger out at the security camera, urinated on the entrance of the synagogue and got back into the passenger side of the car.
The synagogue handed over the footage to police, who then shared it. Several anonymous tips came in identifying the man as Dzhalilov. The tips indicated that Dzhalilov has a Facebook account under the name Ali Ahiska. Ahiska is another word for the Meskhetian Turks, an ethnic subgroup of Turks.
On Oct. 17, 2015, the Ali Ahiska account had shared a video from a Facebook page called “Images from Palestine” and wrote, “This video makes me wanna kill every single Jew out there, finish what Hitler couldn’t.”
“That’s what cemented that this is more than just a nutcase,” Pollack explained. “This is an anti-Semitic act.”
Though the incident paled in comparison to the recent murder of 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue building, Pollack noted that both perpetrators had written anti-Semitic messages online before. Pollack wants hate speech and its consequences to be taken seriously. At the same time, Pollack doesn’t want the defendant to feel like they’re destroying his life.
“[In light of the Pittsburgh shooting], it’s even more important for people to recognize that when people say things on social media and do things like this, it could lead to so much worse,” Pollack said.
Over the past two years, the synagogue has been the target of several attacks. The Jerusalem stone of its mikvah was vandalized, its menorah was stolen and the windows of the synagogue’s van were smashed in, Pollack said. Congregation Beth Solomon has upped its security by working on getting its members key fobs and hiring a security guard for Shabbat.
Pollack attributed these attacks to the fact that Congregation Beth Solomon is also a community center with a preschool of more than 100 students and is a visible organization in the area.
“Unfortunately, that also attracts people who don’t want to do the best things for the community,” Pollack said.
Leading up to the hearing, Pollack reached out to the community about attending to show support for the synagogue. He created a Facebook post, which was shared more than 150 times.
Dozens of people expressed interest, but Pollack told them the sentencing hearing was more important to attend than the plea hearing.
Synagogue Vice President Aleksander Tamarkin was one of the community members who attended the hearing. He said he came to be a part of the community and help fight anti-Semitism. He doesn’t usually wear a kippah, but wore one that day “to make a statement that I’m Jewish,” he said.
Tamarkin said the anti-Semitic comment Dzhalilov made online is a more important facet of this case than that he had urinated on the synagogue.
Zlatina, who works as a professional dancer and at the Chevra, was planning on coming into Center City that day for work, but would have come to the hearing regardless, she said. She wanted the defendant to see the people his actions had affected.
“What pushed me in the end to come,” she said, “is that this is one tangible activity that I can do.”