Vandal strikes Jackson’s Beth Israel on Shavuot

Members of Beth Israel, Jackson’s only Jewish congregation and the largest in Mississippi, had an unwelcome surprise on the second morning of Shavuot.

Late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning someone broke three windows in the building and scratched the word “Jew” into the paint of one of the doors at the entrance facing Old Canton Road.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Rabbi Valerie Cohen, though she feels it was “an isolated incident.”

The Jackson Police Department came out to investigate, and it is being treated as “felony malicious mischief,” a hate crime. The FBI may be called in as well.

After the police were on scene, Cohen said “we cleaned up, repaired and repainted most of it right away.” A poster saying “Tomorrow is Grown Up Day” was placed over the damage on the door until it could be sanded and repainted. Two windows were repaired, the third has to be special-ordered.

Despite all the commotion, the Beth Israel preschool went on as usual, as did the 10:30 a.m. Shavuot Yizkor service. The Reform congregation has about 215 families.

Noting the significance of Shavuot, Cohen said “especially on this day, we celebrate our religion and our place in the community.”

All congregational activities will go on as usual, including tonight’s 6:15 p.m. visit by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.

Cohen said there hasn’t been an incident like this in the 10 years she has led the congregation, and likely not since the 1967 Ku Klux Klan bombings of Beth Israel and the home of then-rabbi Perry Nussbaum.

Cohen noted that those in the community who heard about the crime have been “equally shocked as us and very supportive… we’ve gotten a lot of reminders that people in Jackson are not like this vandal and they care a lot about the Jews and the temple in their community.”

The police are requesting that anyone with tips or other information come forward.

While not unheard of, such incidents are rare in the Deep South. In December 2011 there was anti-Jewish vandalism outside a Jewish family’s home in Vestavia, a Birmingham suburb. In 1991 swastikas were spray-painted at Agudath Israel and Etz Ahayem in Montgomery, which at that time were located about a block apart.

And in a 2009 case of mistaken identity, two men were arrested for spray-painting anti-Jewish messages on a “messianic” congregation in Mobile.