We first heard about the incident Shabbat morning, when a neighbor alerted us that our shul, the Chicago Loop Synagogue, had been vandalized. My family’s first reaction was not to take him seriously—“What?” That can’t be!”—but it was all too true: Shortly after midnight, a black SUV had driven up, a masked guy had gotten out, smashed one of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the synagogue’s front, and applied peel-off swastika stickers to the doors before driving off.
When we arrived for Shabbat services that day, the window was boarded up, and I couldn’t spot the swastikas anywhere, only a pile of sparkling shards on the foyer’s floor attested to the attack. Two TV vans were still parked outside, but one cameraman was packing up, and the other stood quietly in the corner, filming us walking in. I was grateful not to be approached and asked what I felt about the attack that’s being investigated as a hate crime, because I still had to figure that out. In an odd way, I was disappointed not to have seen the swastikas myself; I have seen them only on the video footage that’s now playing on local TV stations. For me, having grown up in post-war Germany, swastika stickers on my Chicago synagogue fast forwarded the past into the present. Somehow, I am blasé about it: What else is new?
In Munich, where I grew up, Jewish institutions have been hidden behind walls and armed security checkpoints ever since seven people died in a fire set to Munich’s Jewish Community Center in 1970 (the perpetrator was never found). And one doesn’t have to think back to the PLO terrorism of the ‘70s and ‘80s to understand that Jewish institutions elsewhere in the world have constantly been threatened—the deadly attack on the kosher market in Paris in 2014, and even the recent spat of bomb threats to JCC around the U.S., are two examples. Perhaps an attack like this means the reality of Jewish life in the diaspora is catching up with Jewish life in America. While violent anti-Semitic attacks in Chicago aren’t new—a white supremacist’s shooting spree in 1999 critically wounded six Jews as they were walking to their synagogue in West Rogers Park—they are quite rare.
So what does it feel like to attend Shabbat services in a synagogue that’s been freshly vandalized? Whenever I am rattled by events, I read the week’s Torah portion with extra attention as I often find some insight that gives me solace. Alas, I didn’t find any in this week’s Parshat Bo, with its back and forth between Moses and Pharaoh about letting the Jews leave Egypt. However, services went on as they always have, and that was soothing in and of itself: the mumbling of the prayers, the little sea of tallits below me, the singing of “Adon Olam.”
After services, congregants gathered for Kiddush in the basement social hall of the synagogue, and we sat at our usual table of friends. Of course, we talked about the incident, and longtime congregants confirmed that nothing like this had ever happened in the synagogue’s almost 60 years at its downtown location. Our board president Lee Zoldan got up and briefly recounted what had happened. When asked by reporters whether this had anything to do with the current political climate, she said she had told them that it had to do with anti-Semitism, which is always present and, which, sadly, will always will be there. She said that support from all kinds of organizations was pouring in, and that flowers had been left on the sidewalk outside.
Suddenly, I felt myself choking up. Flowers? They hadn’t been there when we arrived. I was sitting in the basement of the synagogue, while flowers were above us on the sidewalk. Flowers, left by someone; flowers that, to me, symbolize death. For a few seconds my paradigm shifted, and I felt as if I were sitting in my own tomb. I wanted to shout out, “Thanks for the gesture but we aren’t dead yet! We’re alive and well, and we’re celebrating Shabbat like we always have.” Only a window has been smashed; nobody was injured, and nobody, thank heaven, died. When we left, the vases of white flowers still stood on the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up window, and their sight, their glass glinting in the faint light of early afternoon, gave me a chill.
Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust.