Faith leaders show solidarity after synagogue is defaced

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PAWTUCKET — On Monday morning only a faint red outline of the offensive image was visible beneath a hastily applied coat of beige paint.

But by then the damage had been done, inflicted on members of the Jewish community barely 24 hours before when a swastika was spray painted on a sign outside the Orthodox Jewish synagogue Ohawe Sholam, located at 671 East Ave.

Rabbi Raphie Schochet, director of the Providence Kollel, a Jewish educational institution dedicated to educating Jews about Judaism housed at the synagogue, stood near the sign to decry what is being investigated as a hate crime.

“This symbol that’s been blotted out over here is a symbol of bigots and bullies,” he said. “This act is an act of cowardice, something that’s done in the night when nobody can see them.”

“It can’t be tolerated, it shouldn’t be tolerated and it won’t be tolerated,” Rabbi Schochet said, gesturing toward the painted over sign during a Monday morning press conference.

Sometime in the overnight hours early Sunday morning, an individual or individuals are believed to have painted on the synagogue sign the swastika — an ancient symbol of intersecting lines used by various peoples, but one that became infamous after being co-opted by Adolf Hitler during World War II to promote Aryan domination over the Jews during the Holocaust.

On Sunday evening, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin issued a statement publicly condemning the defacing of the synagogue’s property.

“The vandalism that has occurred at Congregation Ohawe Sholam in Pawtucket is demonic and depressing. There is no possible justification for this awful misdeed, and no room for it in our community. The members of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island stand in spiritual solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters, now and always,” the statement said.

Imam Farid Ansari, president of the Muslim America Dawah Center in Providence and president of the R.I. Council for Muslim Advancement, attended Monday’s press conference to show his support for the Jewish community, noting that any attack on another’s faith is like on attack on their own.

“There’s a verse in the Koran that talks about whenever houses of worship are attacked we should be supportive of one another,” Imam Ansari said.

“This is an instance in which we obviously need to support the Jewish community.”

About 15 months ago, the situation was reversed, and the Muslim community was struggling to understand why someone would deface — with spray painted epithets — a building housing the Islamic School of Rhode Island in West Warwick. A number of faith leaders from across the state, including several leaders from the Jewish community attended a similar press conference then to show their solidarity with the Muslim community.

“They’ve always been first and foremost in assisting the Muslin community when similar things such as this have occurred.

David Pliskin, president of the Orthodox Congregation Ohawe Sholam, the only synagogue in Pawtucket, thanked city officials and the greater community for their “swift and supportive action,” in the wake of the graffiti attack, which he described as a “Despicable, cowardly act that was an attempt to take us back to a time of inexcusable persecution and hatred of Jews.”

“While these actions may have brought back the horrors that millions of people experienced, the immediate result has been an outpouring of compassion and many acts of kindness from the entire community, which has gone a long way towards negating this hateful message,” Pliskin said.

Also in attendance at the press conference to show his support for the Jewish community was Dr. Umer Akbar, a member of the congregation at the Islamic Center of Rhode Island and a parent of a student enrolled at the Islamic School of Rhode Island.

“My first reaction was ‘not again?’” said Dr. Akbar, a neurologist.

“If it happens at one place it affects all of us. It’s no different than it happening at the Islamic School, or happening at a Jewish place of worship. To us, it’s all the same.”

Two years ago, Allan Shapiro, who attends services at Congregation Ohawe Sholam, crafted the sign for the Kollel that was defaced.

He said he was devastated to see what individuals, motivated by hate, are capable of doing.

“If you look at what’s going on overseas in the Middle East, there’s a lot of hate, and mistrust and lack of education,” Shapiro said.