MADISON – Milwaukee Jewish Federation President and CEO Hannah Rosenthal has led High Holy Day services – as someone who once studied to be a rabbi – at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue here for years.
Wednesday, Sept. 20, for erev Rosh Hashanah, she did so again. But this time she did do so with the knowledge that anti-Semitic graffiti was found nearby the same morning.
At first, she wasn’t sure what she was going to say about the graffiti, but she knew she wanted to address it. When Rosenthal arrived at the synagogue, she found attendees discussing whether it was for the best for the graffiti to have been quickly washed off by the city. Ultimately, she decided publicity was for the best.
“I encouraged everyone present and everyone they know to publicly condemn this,” she later recalled. She asked for people “to speak out against any form of hate, especially the anti-Semitism that was on full display.”
This is the second high-profile episode of this nature in recent years in Madison. Three men were arrested for allegedly spraying white supremacist symbols near the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus in 2016. About 10 to 15 buildings and walls were marked Downtown and near campus, according to media reports.
Madison Police Detective Tracie Jokala handled the 2016 case, as the department’s trained hate crimes specialist. Jokala, a 2009 graduate of the Hate Crimes Institute at the Museum For Tolerance in Los Angeles, has now been assigned the Gates of Heaven graffiti case.
“Hate crime incidents can ebb and flow based on the climate of society. We are in very complicated times right now,” said Jokala, in an email to the media after the Gates of Heaven incident.
“The answer is not simple, but it starts with empathy. Those who engage in hate speech and crimes have little or none. And in the last few decades the Internet has become a petri dish in which those who have the same jaded ideas can find others who think the same way, and therefore be emboldened.”
Madison Police have narrowed down the Gates of Heaven graffiti incident to about a 10-hour period. A passerby saw it at about 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, Sept 20. People who are homeless who frequent the area hadn’t seen the graffiti as of about 10 a.m. the day before, said Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain.
The graffiti was found on a monument near the historic synagogue, which no longer fully operates as a shul and is part of the Madison city parks system.
“Graffiti depicting hate symbols was discovered this morning outside Gates of Heaven in Madison, a former synagogue where Jews gather each year to celebrate the Jewish high holy days,” read a statement from Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “This act of bigotry is especially painful as we prepare for the holiest days of the Jewish year.”
The graffiti was comprised of two swastikas and the words “Antifa sucks” and “Trump rules.” Antifa is an anti-fascist political group that some have criticized for militant tactics. The defaced piece is the International Brigades monument in James Madison Park. It honors Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
It’s not clear if the spray-painted graffiti was targeting the synagogue, the anti-fascist message of the monument, or both.
“We don’t know,” DeSpain said. “My sense is this memorial may be a little easier to spray paint on than the synagogue in the eyes of the public, but that’s just a guess.”
Gates of Heaven
Built in 1863, Gates of Heaven is the fourth-oldest surviving synagogue building in the nation, according to the City of Madison. The building was moved to James Madison Park in 1971. The city website describes it as a “popular location for intimate wedding ceremonies,” adding that “the small upstairs seating area provides a wonderful birds-eye view for guests.”
The defaced memorial is steps away from the synagogue, which typically has a couple hundred people in attendance for Rosenthal’s services, she said. Rosenthal said she leads services at the synagogue for the High Holidays in honor of her late parents.
Rosenthal expressed concern that swastikas are being normalized and that people are being lulled into complacency. She thus views incidents like this one as a call to action.
“It’s awful and it’s painful,” Rosenthal said. “It’s not completely unexpected. We have seen such hatred unleashed in this country.”
More than 100 people spent their Sunday, Sept. 24 afternoon at James Madison Park condemning the act of vandalism, according to WISC-TV. Some visitors left flowers near the monument, too.
“It is especially sad for us in the Jewish community to deal with this incident as we look forward to welcoming our New Year, 5778, this evening,” said Rabbi Paula Jayne Winnig, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison, in a statement released soon after the incident.