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‘A Message of Hope’: The Flagstaff Community Responds to Anti-Semitic Vandalism

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Ryan Heinsius
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The Flagstaff community is responding to a hate crime at a new synagogue … with love. After vandals broke into the construction site of the Chabad Jewish community center and carved swastikas into the walls and did other damage, members of the community have been leaving tin-foil-covered hearts all along the fence. Many have messages of unity and hope. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with the Rabbi Dovie Shapiro about the outpouring of love at a time when anti-Semitism and white nationalism are on the rise worldwide. 

Rabbi Dovie Shapiro: This is really a beautiful response in the community. Initially when it happened, it’s shocking, it’s disturbing, and we never imagined that the community would turn around with so much support. When something like this happens and your sanctuary is vandalized, you could feel very alone, and for the community to come out in such a positive way to hang up these hearts with these beautiful messages on it, really just shows what Flagstaff is really all about.

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Rabbi Dovie Shapiro in the under-construction Chabad Center in Flagstaff.

Ryan Heinsius: There are a lot of school children who’ve done many of these hearts. That’s the point at which kids learn love and tolerance. I imagine that gives you further hope that children are involved in this and are taking part in this display.

RDS: Absolutely. This is what it’s all about—taking a tragedy and turning it around. That’s the best we can do. We can only change ourselves. One more good deed has a ripple effect and it changes our world. I’m so happy to see that the kids in school are learning this and doing this now, it’s pretty amazing.

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RH: You’ve been building a Jewish community here for almost 15 years. Did this episode in any way take momentum away from that or shake your faith in community?

RDS: Absolutely not. As I said, it was shocking but it really strengthened our resolve to keep doing what we’re doing. It strengthens our commitment to this community and it doesn’t change anything about what we’re doing. It just encourages us to do more, and we really can’t wait until we can open up our doors and welcome the community to the grand opening and be a part of this celebration.

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Rabbi Shapiro stands in front of one of several swastikas painted on windows and carved into the walls of the Chabad Center.

RH: There have unfortunately been many episodes of this type throughout the world in places of worship. What are your feelings about these incidents increasing, especially as you’re trying to get a new congregation off the ground?

RDS: It reminds us that unfortunately there still is hate in the world. There are people who hate for no reason. People always try to understand it. What is the reason behind it? I don’t believe there is a reason for hate. People will always find a reason, but it’s not really a reason, it’s a force of evil that people just bear hatred in their heart, and sometimes it’s because they don’t know someone else. It’s there and the more we can educate, the more we can shine our lights brighter, the more we can make a difference. By teaching the message of love that’s how you overpower the message of hate. You can’t do it any other way.

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RH: How do these cases of intimidation and violence affect this age-old notion as a place of worship as a sanctuary? Do they make places less accessible?

RDS: It definitely has the opportunity to do that. There are some who, when they hear stories like this, it makes them afraid to participate or go to the synagogue. But there are so many more who, it actually strengthens them to say that we want to be a part of this, we want to show our support. When this happens it only encourages us to be stronger. If you look throughout Jewish history, if the Jewish people would have always stepped back from their Judaism because of all of the persecution we wouldn’t be around today. And the fact that the Jewish people are alive and strong and thriving especially here in the beautiful United States of America with the amazing country and support that we have, it’s just a sign that in life you always have two ways to go: you have the opportunity to get weaker or get stronger. And for the Jewish people it’s always made us stronger. It’s disturbing to see these things happening and it’s disturbing to see the rise of anti-Semitism. If you look up the numbers from the ADL you’ll see there’s been a rise of anti-Semitism. But for us personally here, I’ve seen that community members, it’s only brought them more together and more supportive because when you care about something, you don’t back down because someone intimidated you. It strengthens you to be the positive person and community that you are in an even greater way.

RH: And I think the evidence of that is right there on the fence outside.

RDS: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about and like I said, this is Flagstaff. Those hearts on the fence is what Flagstaff is all about. It’s heartwarming to see all the hearts. Excuse me for the pun, but it’s beautiful, it’s a message of hope and just to see all these hearts on the fence, is amazing. It’s inspiring actually.

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Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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