Antisemitism has been breaking out too often for comfort in recent years, according to local and national Jewish leaders.
And in December, antisemitism struck South Jersey.
Two incidents, one at Marlton Middle School and another at Congregation Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, happened in Burlington County specifically.
On Dec. 5 at Adath Emanu-El, a sixth-grade religious school student walked into the office and told synagogue leaders about a swastika sticker on a sign in the parking lot. “We are everywhere,” read the text above the swastika.
Then, on Dec. 16 and 17 at Marlton Middle, two swastikas were found in boys bathroom stalls. Next to one was the sentence “Hitler was right,” according to Evesham Township School District Superintendent Justin Smith. The other had a stick figure with X’ed-out eyes beside the word “Jew.”
Leaders at both institutions informed local law enforcement about the swastikas, and investigations are ongoing. Police removed the sticker at the Reform temple and kept it for their records, according to Rabbi Benjamin David.
Evesham Township Police Chief Christopher Chew told the Courier Post that his department is reviewing video from Marlton Middle.
Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina called both incidents “extremely disturbing.” He said he thought they could be related to a larger rise in antisemitism in New Jersey and the country. But he didn’t necessarily see them as a problem specific to the county.
Regardless of the reason, though, the outbreaks “need to be confronted,” Coffina said.
After both incidents, Burlington and South Jersey residents and leaders did just that.
On Dec. 5, the same day that the student walked into the synagogue office, David sent a letter condemning antisemitism and hate to his congregation of about 400 families. Later that night, Adath Emanu-El held its preplanned Chanukah candle lighting in the parking lot.
David made a Facebook post, and about 200 people, including non-Jews, showed up to light candles on the holiday’s last night.
“It was this beautiful moment,” he said.
Like the rabbi, Smith responded swiftly to the incident at his institution. On Dec. 17, a day after finding the first swastika, Smith sent a letter to his community.
He promised to discipline the students involved if he discovered their identities. He also said Marlton Middle would be “collaborating with community resources to help with increasing understanding and acceptance among all students.”
Smith concluded by calling diversity “an incredible strength of our community.” Other leaders have also condemned the antisemitic activity.
“As long as I’m breathing and in elected office, I will never stay quiet at antisemitism,” said Mount Laurel Mayor Stephen Steglik.
Mount Laurel is starting a diversity and inclusion board in 2022, and a Jewish resident is going to be on it, Steglik added.
U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (NJ-03), who represents Mount Laurel and Evesham in Congress, denounced hate and antisemitism.
“It breaks my heart that we’ve seen so much hate, division and antisemitism in our community this month,” Kim said. “In our togetherness, I hope we stand up to divisive rhetoric and hate.”
On Dec. 21, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made a statement via Twitter.
Through a tweet criticizing several antisemitic outbreaks around the state, the governor said he was “appalled that swastikas were recently drawn” at Marlton Middle.
“We will not let antisemitism or hatred go unchallenged here in New Jersey,” Murphy added.
Based on this response, Steglik believes far more residents condemn antisemitism than those who support it. But Coffina thinks that antisemitism and hate are still deep-rooted cultural issues.
The prosecutor argued that institutions can only do so much. Local police departments and his office, for example, can respond only when an incident rises to the level of a crime.
“Parents have to be teaching their kids just how harmful a swastika is,” he said.
Like many synagogues in the Philadelphia area, Adath Emanu-El is not waiting for that to happen. After finding the swastika sticker and notifying police, David and his staff reviewed their security protocols.
Later, Adath Emanu-El brought in a representative from Coffina’s office and a security advisor from the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey to evaluate how staff handled this incident.
Adath Emanu-El came away from this experience confident in its basic safety approach of having a guard on duty during services and school hours, according to David.
The temple added that protocol after the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue complex shooting in Pittsburgh, which killed 11 Jews.
“All of us have experienced antisemitism in recent years,” said the rabbi.
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