Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart seemed shaken Thursday morning when she stood up on the floor of the Legislature to talk about the vandalism of the city’s South Street Temple overnight Tuesday.
A mother and her young daughter, members of the Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, were walking to the girl’s school Wednesday morning when they discovered the swastika painted on the front steps and graffiti slurs on the wooden front doors of the synagogue.
“My friends and I grew up a few blocks from this beautiful synagogue,” Wishart said. “We were those girls on our way to elementary school, and this beautiful building was a welcome landmark every morning and afternoon on our walk.”
The girls attended services and parties there, and she has dear friends, like family to her, who are members, she said. She has been thinking about that young girl who saw the slurs, and herself as a young girl, taking their journeys by this Lincoln landmark, filled with idealism about the future. She has been thinking about the members of the temple who had ancestors who experienced one of the darkest periods of history.
“I am deeply, deeply saddened and disturbed that this has happened to a beautiful place of worship in our community,” Wishart said. “And I think about what am I doing and what are we all doing to ensure that all the young girls and boys in this world grow up with a world with less hate in it.”
Members of the congregation told her it’s not the first time the temple has experienced hate and vandalism, but this hate comes nowhere near the number of messages of love they have received, especially this week.
Wishart encouraged senators to reach out to the congregation with their support. The damage is significant and will cost more than the synagogue has in its budget to remove the graffiti and repair the damage, she said.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise $5,000 to repair the damaged front door, which is an original wood door from 1924 when the temple was built. The nearly 100-year-old doors need special care and handling. People can also send donations to the temple.
Several other senators — Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks and Omaha Sens. Ernie Chambers and John McCollister — also stood to comment on the vandalism.
Pansing Brooks said that when Lincoln was chosen as the Nebraska state capital and the Legislature met for the first time in early 1885, one of the first things it did was to set aside city lots for religions of all denominations. For $50, the Jewish congregation obtained a provisional deed for two lots on 12th and D streets. That building later burned down, and in 1922 the congregation rebuilt on the new site of 20th and South streets.
The Holy Ark that holds the Torah scrolls, and the pulpit in front of it, has ornamental woodwork carved by Keats Lorenz, who later gained fame as the creator of the mahogany doors of the state Capitol’s east legislative chamber, Pansing Brooks said.
Chambers said he felt for the people whose temple was defaced. But brick and mortar is nothing.
“The damage done to the people is what we should be trying to rectify,” he said.
Rabbi Teri Appleby said Thursday a house of worship is supposed to be a safe place, emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually.
“I think when it hits so close to home, when it’s your own building, you’re in shock,” she said. “I think with the rising anti-Semitism in the country and in Europe, it always is shocking, but not surprising, that something like this might happen.”
Appleby said the young girl who discovered the graffiti with her mother asked why somebody would do something like that.
“It’s part of the innocence,” she said. “We’re in an inclusive environment and we talk about respect, and then something like this happens and they don’t understand it.”
Most adults also don’t understand this level of hate and why someone thinks it’s OK to do this, she said.
The congregation is small, with about 85 families, she said. But the community is strong, and she predicts more people, instead of fewer, will come to services Friday night.
“We’re not going to be afraid,” she said. “We will come together because it strengthens us.”
Knowing they are not alone, that they don’t have to hide, but have the support of the religious and the secular community and leadership in Lincoln, makes a big difference, Appleby said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted Thursday: “I condemn anti-Semitism in the strongest possible terms, and encourage Nebraskans from all backgrounds to do the same. The Jewish community has been a vital part of our state for generations.”