MADISON – Milwaukee Jewish Federation President and CEO Hannah Rosenthal has been leading High Holy Day services – as someone who once studied to be a rabbi – at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue here for years.
Wednesday night, for erev Rosh Hashanah, she’ll do so again. But this time she’ll do so with the knowledge that anti-Semitic graffiti was found nearby the same morning.
“I’m not going to ignore it,” she said, though she isn’t quite sure how she’ll address it at services.
Madison Police have narrowed down the anti-Semitic 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 p.m. Tuesday, 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,” reads 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 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.”
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.”
Parks staff removed the graffiti by about 10:15 a.m., according to Eric Knepp, Madison Parks superintendent.
“While this graffiti appears to target the Jewish community, any act of bigotry is intolerable, as an attack against one is an attack against all,” read the statement issued by Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “We stand with the vast majority of Americans in condemning bigotry wherever it occurs.”
The statement calls for people not to allow hatred to cause a divide.
“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. “We enter this year hopeful that this will be a year of peace, security, health and prosperity for all people everywhere.”
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.
More photos of the International Brigades monument in Madison, by Madison Police: