The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Swastikas at Jewish community center replaced with messages of love, support

The Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax was defaced in early October.
The Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax was defaced in early October. (Jennifer Smetek)

There were 19 swastikas, and they were a sign of worse to come.

When a diverse, vibrant and relatively liberal part of Northern Virginia awoke earlier this month to 19 swastikas painted on the wall of the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax County, it was another sign that America has taken a dark detour.

And anti-Semitic incidents like it — which increased by 57 percent last year, the most dramatic increase the Anti-Defamation League has ever recorded — made Saturday’s massacre of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man yelling “All Jews must die” feel almost inevitable.

“I’ve had active-shooter training, and I remembered that coming in today,” Phyllis Klein, 64, said after finishing her exercise routine at the community center, the synagogue shooting heavy on her mind.

Having lived in New York and then this liberal part of Virginia, Klein said she’s rarely experienced a profound sting of anti-Semitism, so the graffiti — the second time the center had been vandalized in 18 months — worried her.

The J is a place where an entire community comes to learn, to exercise, to recreate, to bond. There is a preschool there, and throughout the morning, tiny children of many hues went for outings, holding on to a long rope like a school of little trout strung on a line.

On Monday morning, before the preschoolers’ snack time and while their parents were all away at work, the senior citizens who fill the J’s gym stopped in the parking lot to reflect on the changing world they are living in. Their parents were the Holocaust generation; their children grew up in the age of Joe Lieberman and Liev Schreiber. Their grandchildren, however, may be facing a new world where Nazi flags are flown and swastikas return.

Carol, 71, was a little worried when she came in for her workout Monday. Worried enough to ask me not to publish her last name. And it’s a worry she’s not familiar with.

“I don’t know, I just grew up in a part of Chicago where most people got along,” she said. “There were signs at restaurants and country clubs that said ‘Members Only,’ and we knew that meant ‘No Jews.’ But swastikas? It wasn’t like that.”

Over the weekend, she texted her 74-year-old brother in Seattle to talk about the change she is feeling in America.

“He told me: ‘Carol. It’s out there,’ ” she said. “It was just hidden. I guess the difference is that they’re out in the open now. The rocks have been turned over, and the creeps are coming out.”

Robert Berman said the swastikas are an important reminder of the way Jews have been targeted throughout history.

“I don’t believe they should’ve washed them off,” said Berman, an economics professor who remembers a time when anti-Semitism was open and rampant. “I do know it comes in waves. And the wave is increasing.”

The attack on Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh didn’t scare him, he said.

“I was angered,” he said. And he believes that leaving the swastikas up would only demonstrate the strength of Jews who walk into the center, past the hatred.

“Jews will walk in no matter what,” he said.

But Klein believes the toxic political climate is emboldening anti-Semites and creating new hatred where there had been none.

“I don’t care what Republicans say, all this hate talk has something to do with it,” Klein said.

Marian Delmore, 78, said she is only a quarter Jewish. But she feels the weight of the hatred, too.

“All this incivility does have an effect,” she said.

It bothered Delmore that President Trump made no effort to unite the country after such an extraordinary month. It began with the anti-Semitic graffiti in Northern Virginia, but also included the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, White House attacks on desperate migrants walking through Mexico to the U.S. border, the mailing of pipe bombs to more than a dozen Trump critics, the racially motivated slaying of two African Americans in a Kentucky grocery store and then the targeted massacre of 11 Jews.

But there was another, unreported graffiti incident at the community center early this month, said Berman, the economist. And it was the most important one.

“The next day, all over the sidewalk, there were all kinds of messages in colored chalk,” he said. “Messages of support. That’s the story you missed.”

The rain washed those chalk messages away in a matter of days. Those words — the messages of love and support that remind us we are an entire nation of refugees and immigrants who share the same hopes, dreams, struggles and goals — need to be rewritten often, after every storm. A relentless repetition of our true values will be the way America survives the indelible stain of hatred.

Twitter: @petulad

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