In the midst of a national and citywide spike in anti-Semitic acts, an Upper West Side church, which recently announced its status as a sanctuary for the undocumented, discovered a series of swastikas carved into its front door.
The Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian Universalist church, learned of the vandalism on the morning of Feb. 28.
“Our building engineer arrived at church and saw it carved on the front doors, facing Central Park West,” the Rev. Schuyler Vogel said. “We suspect it happened sometime that night before; our building closed at 10 p.m. — sometime between that and 9 a.m.”
The church reported the damage to law enforcement that morning. While Fourth Universalist did not have a security camera, camera footage from two of the church’s neighbors was viewed but no suspect was found, Vogel said. The congregation is considering installing its own security system.
Unitarian Universalism has Christian roots but evolved into a progressive institution without a specific required set of beliefs, Vogel said, explaining that atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews and followers of other religious philosophies are members of his congregation.
The vandalism, which is being investigated by New York Police Department’s Hate Crime Task Force, came in the midst of a 55 percent year-to-date increase in hate crimes from Jan. 1 to Feb. 26 compared to last year, according to the NYPD. During that same period, anti-Semitic crimes increased 94 percent.
Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League has recorded a sharp rise in anti-Semitic acts, said Etzion Neuer, director of community service and policy. Since the start of the year, around 100 threats have been called into Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions, including the ADL midtown Manhattan office. On March 3, a Missouri man was arrested for calling threats into the ADL office as well as seven other Jewish institutions.
Vogel said he believes the national political climate has contributed to the increase in hate crimes.
“I think there has been a lot of abdication of leadership, particularly at the national level, around denouncing rhetoric that encourages racial divide, racial tension,” Vogel said. “The idea that certain people belong here and certain people don’t — that we’ve heard a lot of on the national level — is really harmful.”
Neuer said that while swastikas will always represent hate and the Nazi Party for Jews, they have also been used to attack and intimidate non-Jewish groups.
“It’s not unheard of to see them as a generic symbol of hate,” he said.
In addition to the swastikas, the words “race office” were carved into the doors in block letters.
“None of us knew what that meant, so we Googled it,” Vogel said. “It turns out that it is a reference to a department within the Nazi Party during the Third Reich that focused on enforcing racial hierarchies and political propaganda. So whoever did it, we surmise, is not simply just a casual passerby but someone with some familiarity and knowledge of fascism and the ideology attached to it.”
To cover up the damage before the doors can be permanently repaired, the Fourth Universalist Society sanded down the door and applied lacquer over the affected area.
The congregation has Jewish members, including one who fled Europe as the Nazi Party came to power, Vogel said.
Fourth Universalist congregation member Jim Saslow, who was raised Jewish and still considers himself culturally Jewish, spoke about his reaction to the carvings.
“I was very upset when they carved that stuff into the door because, as a Jew, you’re raised from childhood knowing that your group have been victims of oppression, hatred, murder, pogroms, and the Holocaust for thousands of years,” Saslow said. “You grow up knowing that it has always happened and always thinking, it could happen again.”
Vogel said he was happy to see widespread support for the Fourth Universalist Society in the midst of the vandalism.
“We’ve got emails from people across the country offering their support,” Vogel said. “We’ve been in conversations with our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, both at a national level and also more regional — and they have been really wonderful. As well as our neighboring churches.”
In response to the carved swastikas, Fourth Universalist is holding an interfaith event on March 10 at 5:30 p.m. to rededicate the building. In addition to Vogel, speakers include journalist and former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers, West End Synagogue Rabbi Marc Margolius, Faith in New York executive director Onleilove Alston and Jonathan Soto, senior community liaison with the mayor’s office.
The motive of the assailant remains unclear.
“We don’t know why someone decided to target us,” Vogel said, suggesting that perhaps the publicity around the sanctuary status or a “Black Lives Matter” sign in front of the building could have been the cause.
“It has led to a reflection, at least for me, on the seriousness of social justice work,” he said. “And how often it can be seen, particularly among people of a certain degree of privilege, as exciting; as sort of a sexy thing, you know: ‘We’re going to stand out there and go to a rally and protest.’
“And real, true social justice, which is incredibly difficult and sometimes dangerous,” Vogel said. “And this is just a small threat — the people here can weather it — it’s a slippery slope from that to something far worse,”