FOR THE STAFF at the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith it's more real than statistics. It's people crying over the phone. It's families afraid to leave the house. It's small children asking their parents, "What's a kike?" It's the huge stack of hate mail, the death threats, the photographs of gun collections, the crazy scrawled epithets, wild and hysterical and venomous.

Edward N. Leavy, director of the League, keeps his home phone and address unlisted, and when he leaves his office after a day of taking the calls and reading the mail, he doesn't waste any time getting to his car.

In the first 10 days of November Leavy and the two lawyers assisting him got these reports from Montgomery County alone:

* An elaborate, skillfully painted display of swastikas, hate slogans and an eight-foot Nazi eagle at Shaare Tefila Synagogue in Silver Spring.

* Similar drawings at White Oak shopping center around the corner.

* Swastika with heart and "Right On" at a Rockville government building.

* Swastika and the word "scull" in a Kensington school driveway.

A few days later, a kosher delicatessen in Wheaton was painted with a swastika, and author Herman Wouk's house in Georgetown was hit with one; a week after that, tomato stakes were arranged in a swastika on a lawn, and a Jewish elementary school in Rockville was defaced with slogans and drawings of a gas chamber.

"When I saw that, my first reaction was anger," says Renee Popkin, education director at the school, the Children's Learning Center. "The second was frustration, because I'm in charge of the building. I don't understand it. I had taken my daughter to see the mess at Shaare Tefila, and when she saw this, she said, 'I thought they caught those guys.' I had to explain that these were other guys, that there are more of them."

She had no close relatives in the Holocaust, but that's not the point.

"When you see the signs saying, 'Death to Jews and Gooks,' and 'Hitler was right,' and 'Silent but deadly genocide' with a picture of a gas chamber, you get scared. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, but I thought I was coming to a civilized, educated county here. When a first grader who can read comes to me and says, 'What's genocide? Why do they say Hitler was right?,' what am I going to say?

"Well, I can think of something to say, but the kids I worry about are the ones who don't ask those questions, who don't express their feelings but keep it all inside. What about them?"

In 1980 Montgomery County had 13 reports of hate-violence incidents, two-thirds of which were anti-Semitic. In 1981 it was 101. In the first nine months of this year it was 143.

"What is happening here?" asks Michael Berenbaum of the Jewish Community Council. "The national surveys say anti-Semitism is declining. But you ask any Jew if things are worse today, and you get a visceral 'Yes!' I think they're both right."

It started in the '70s, he says. "A new language came to be, the language of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. Of course, you can't say every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but some definitely is."

It is true, he adds, that as education levels of society have risen, there is less basic stereotyping: Think back to the Irish hod carrier image, the Paddy and Mike jokes, the Italian barrel organ man with rings in his ears. There have been changes, and big ones. But now, Berenbaum says, there are new signs of anti-Semitism. One example would be among some groups of upwardly mobile blacks, dating back to the civil rights movement in the '70s.

There's something else, too.

"The period of sanitization is ended. The shield of the Holocaust is gone," he warns.

This is partly from the sheer passage of time, one suspects. But noted psychoanalyst Rollo May, in his 1972 book, "Power and Innocence," writes of "the creeping fascism already discernible in our country: the turning of youth against their fathers, the anti-intellectualism, the growth of violence coupled with the sense of powerlessness of the mass of people . . ."

A new generation has grown up that knows Hitler only as a figure in history, that learned of the death camps only through books and not with the sudden, breakfast-table shock of a newspaper headline -- or page after page of horror in Life magazine and the newsreels of skeletal bodies being bulldozed into trenches -- and lately has even been exposed to published ravings that the Holocaust never happened.

Painting a swastika on a Jew's house may be exciting because it is forbidden, a daring stunt, an act of bravado, like digging up a grave. In most cases, police and Jewish leaders agree, the vandals are teen-agers, who have no real idea what the act means.

They have never seen--as some of their victims have--laughing Nazi storm troopers with paint brushes in hand daubing the Star of David on Jewish-owned shops. (The Nazis did not usually draw the swastika, presumably because they revered their own symbol. Their modern imitators don't know the difference.) To these victims, the hate marks on the house mean not "just kids" but a threat carrying all the crushing power of a monolithic state that was out to exterminate them.

"That was the worst thing," observes Rabbi Martin S. Halpern of Shaare Tefila, "that in Germany the police were part of it, the government itself."

He has a number of Holocaust survivors in his congregation, and since the desecration of the synagogue, several have complained of traumatic flashbacks as they relive the terror.

"My first reaction on seeing the chapel wall with those signs on it was, 'What about the people who come to the early-morning service? Some of them were in the camps. What will they feel?' "

Dr. Philip Glasner, a Baltimore child psychiatrist, agrees that "this is history. Hitler went this same way." But he warns against getting bogged down in analogies to Nazi storm troopers and other elaborate theories.

"These are angry kids," he says. "Their life is rough, they're angry at the society and the system. Their unemployment rate is terrific. Anti-Semitism arises only in bad, bad times. People look for a scapegoat, and it's apt to be the Jews, historically, since they are viewed as having money.

"It's economics. That's what it's all about. The economic situation."

The surge in anti-Semitism that has afflicted the Washington area seems to be concentrated in Montgomery County. Part of the reason, Police Chief Bernard D. Crooke says, is the change that has overtaken the county in the past 15 years, transforming it from an affluent, homogeneous bedroom community to a demographic mix of Asians, Hispanics, blacks, plus a very visible Jewish contingent that includes many survivors of the concentration camps.

"Today, 56 percent of our people work here in the county," he says. "There are more people who need government aid, and with the economy the way it is, people are frustrated, they're striking out in anger."

Another factor is the county's pioneering system of flagging hate-violence incidents, separating them from simple vandalism. Thus, while Montgomery's record for all types of hate-violence has mushroomed, Maryland state totals for anti-Semitic incidents were 10 in 1980 and 51 last year, while none were reported in the District of Columbia in '81 and only seven so far this year. Virginia reports few, too.

Nationally, the ADL reported 974 anti-Semitic vandalism episodes in 32 states last year, compared with 377 the year before, and 120 in 1979. Assaults, mail and phone threats and harassment of Jews and Jewish institutions tripled in 1981 over 1980.

In Virginia, at least, the law is not geared to deal adequately with the problem. A Jewish family in West Springfield complained of being harassed by a neighbor for over a year.

"First it was a swastika painted on the porch step," said Susan Moss. "We called the police and they said it was probably kids. We scrubbed it out and waited up most of that night, but next morning there was another one . . . And then the phone calls. Sometimes 40 a day. Sometimes he just hangs up, and sometimes he says he's gonna kill us. We pretty well know who it is: We have it on tape here . . ."

Finally the Mosses got a local magistrate to issue a warrant for breach of the peace and demanded a peace bond, under which the neighbor would be fined for further acts.

But the case was thrown out because the state code didn't validate the county ordinance.

"The state code is pretty specific," comments Thomas Gallahue, assistant commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax County. "It forbids exhibits with intent to intimidate, like swastikas. But you have to catch the person. Our criminal law isn't designed to punish you for your private prejudices but only when you intrude on the rights of others."

Though police admit it is hard to catch vandals, the record is getting better. Six area white men aged 18 to 23 and apparently not formally connected with organized hate groups have been arrested for the Shaare Tefila desecration, and more may be picked up soon.

"The more people are involved, the better chance we have," says John H. Jones, community relations officer with Montgomery County police. "The trouble is, it's usually spur-of-the-moment stuff. And sometimes the victims want to keep it quiet, like rape victims. In this case, there was a lot of premeditation. They bought the spray paint. And there was a burglary."

He adds: "Our best weapon is tips."

Which brings the whole thing back to the community and its sensitivity to hate-violence.

Just yesterday, the Montgomery County Council passed emergency ordinances setting up $50,000 in start-up money for a tipster fund and making people liable to civil action in anti-Semitism cases. Parents also are liable for anti-Semitic acts by juveniles.

County schools have been inviting the police in for years to lecture on vandalism, and they now include hate-violence. Juniors and seniors learn about Nazism and bigotry in special classes. There is also the Network of Neighbors, sponsored by the county Human Relations Commission, which gives support to hate victims. And a pilot project, the first in the nation, gives juvenile offenders a 48-hour course of education and counseling in the workings of hate. Parents are included in some sessions.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of people in Montgomery County and elsewhere have expressed revulsion and disgust at the recent events. "There is a sense of alarm and anger that this kind of behavior can be tolerated here," says Halpern.

The weekend after Shaare Tefila was attacked, 800 people showed up -- Jew and non-Jew -- to clean the walls.

In the case of the elementary school, a local building firm has volunteered to clean up, free.

"These things should bring the whole community together in outrage," says Berenbaum. "I hope they throw the book at those people. Isolate them. They've got to know they'll get caught, and it will hurt, and they'll become outcasts."

William Aitcheson, 22, who burned a cross on the lawn of the Phillip Butlers' home in College Park Woods, was fined $23,000 this spring, plus another $3,000 in lawsuits involving other incidents.

Roger Frisbee is a 19-year-old junior at the University of Maryland, an A student who put on a Nazi-like uniform, goose-stepped up to a Jewish girl in a dormitory last spring, shouted a German phrase and shot at her five times with a BB gun, striking her on the leg. The victim, as it happened, had lost most of her family in the Holocaust.

The youth was given a suspended sentence, put on probation and ordered to do 250 hours of work at B'nai B'rith.

"I think it finally came home to him," says Leavy, in whose office at the Anti-Defamation League Frisbee still spends a few hours a week. "At least he understands that it was serious to the victim. He's been analyzing the event and doing some reading here and on campus. He's established good relations with Robert Saks, the rabbi there. I think it was basically an aberration."

Unfortunately, some communities are themselves so confused that they cannot act. After the BB episode, Leavy says, the university set up a task force on campus hate-violence, which suggested that student leaders get together, meet each other and build working relationships, as their adult counterparts do.

"They wouldn't even meet!" Leavy said. "I mean, the black student association, the Jewish student group, the Hispanics, the Italians, the Newman Society: They're so polarized we couldn't even get 'em together in a room!"

Many Jewish leaders and police officials are concerned over the media's role in publicizing the rise of bigotry. Says Michael Berenbaum, "When 1,250 people attended an interfaith choral concert in Washington, with Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic choirs, it got no coverage in The Post or on TV. But the same day they gave five columns to one kid who painted swastikas on a school. Now, that is distorting the reality of this community. This concert was a major statement of what Washington is all about."

Comments Montgomery County Police Chief Crooke, "We're used to the problem. You do get the copycat effect. But in the long run, publicity is good. For one thing, it increases the chance of someone talking or bringing in a tip."

Note: The Rockville elementary school had been defaced three times before, but it had not been reported. This time it was.

Note: Rabbi Halpern had the markings on his synagogue left in place for a week so the world could see them.

"In the past, the response was often to conceal these things, sweep them under the rug," he says. "But overall, I think publicity is favorable. If you acquiesce, even with silence, you are bound to encourage more."

Inside Shaare Tefila stands a menorah with six electric candles representing the Holocaust's 6 million Jewish victims. It is always lit, day and night.

"We cannot forget the Holocaust," Halpern says. "We dare not forget. I mean all of us."