Rabbi relieved that outrage over Natick swastika extended past Jewish community

Posted on April 30, 2023

Originally published in the MetroWest Daily News

April 30, 2023

Like many others in my line of work, I have been following the reports about rising levels of antisemitism. I am saddened by the way in which these incidents have become commonplace in communities throughout the country. It was only last month that the Anti-Defamation League released a report that antisemitic incidents hit their highest level recorded in New England. And I’m concerned with the muted response from the wider community that many of these incidents receive.

As a rabbi, responding to antisemitism has become a regular part of my job. This has included responding to attacks that have received national coverage (the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis, among others). It has meant conversations with members of my community who are frightened by antisemitic incidents that are taking place. And it has involved speaking up for members of my community who have faced antisemitism. I have reached out in response to swastikas drawn in school buildings, antisemitic comments in local sports teams and a variety of other cases of prejudice toward the Jewish community.

It was inevitable that eventually there would be an incident in the town in which I live. And just over a week ago, it happened. While we were away on vacation, we began to see posts on social media and receive text messages from friends about a swastika that had been drawn on the ground by the West Natick train station.

This location, less than a mile from two synagogues, was clearly chosen so that it would be seen by members of the Jewish community and a wide local audience. I felt sick to my stomach  Who could do this in the town in which we live? Why would someone do this in Natick? How would the local community respond?

While I of course wanted to continue enjoying our family vacation, my wife and I kept checking various Natick social media groups to see how the community was responding. It was heartening to see that almost immediately someone had transformed the swastika into a flower and accompanied it by the message: “HATE HAS NO PLACE HERE.” And shortly thereafter, the Department of Public Works installed new tarmac to ensure the hateful symbol was covered.

The swastika was gone, but it had been seen, it had happened in our town, and there remained the question of how to respond.

In responding to antisemitic incidents, I think this event in Natick demonstrates both the positive and negative way in which people react not just to antisemitism, but also to other acts of racism, hate and prejudice.

I was comforted to see the variety of responses from beyond the Jewish community who were voicing their disappointment and disgust that this could happen in Natick. I felt a sense of relief that the outrage in the face of antisemitism was not coming from the Jewish community alone, but shared by others in Natick. We would not be expected to fight against this act of hate on our own, but would be supported by the wider community. I especially appreciated that a professional colleague of another faith who reached out to let me know that they stood with us in support and solidarity.

But at the same time, I was disappointed by some voices who sought to downplay the incident. There were comments that suggested that this was probably just a teenager seeking attention and not necessarily an act of hate. And then there was the attempt to shift focus to the orientation of the swastika and to suggest either ignorance or a connection to the Hindu community. (This later suggestion is offensive to both the Jewish and Hindu communities). I don’t know the motivations for responding in this way, but I do know the impact  it makes the Jewish community feel unseen and alone in the face of what was clearly and undeniably an antisemitic act. It was disappointing not to see more responses challenging these opinions.

We’re living through a moment in America where levels of antisemitism, racism and prejudice are rising. In responding to this epidemic of hate, there is a vitally important need for allyship. No community should be left to face acts of hate on their own. We must speak out when we’re the ones being attacked, but it’s equally crucial to speak out on behalf of others being attacked.

When these incidents happen, we should reach out to the affected community to let them know that they do not stand alone, that the outrage and opposition to hate is shared by others. A lovely and supportive example is the statement of allyship put out by Natick is United and SPARK Kindness in response to this most recent antisemitic incident.

It was disappointing and distressing to see a swastika in Natick, but the supportive messages and swift actions outweighed a few unhelpful comments and filled the silence that we have experienced in the face of these acts in the past. And I hope that the best of these responses can serve as a model for us all in responding to antisemitism, racism, prejudice and hate, wherever we might encounter it.