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Synagogue pulls together after vandalism

  • 2 min to read
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Oliver Birchwood-Glover stands near the windows that were shot up at Congregation Beth Israel in Walla Walla.

When vandals struck Walla Walla’s Congregation Beth Israel in December, members weren’t sure whether it was an act of anti-Semitism. More than a month later, people are learning to deal with it.

“You just kind of have to move forward,” Oliver Birchwood-Glover, Congregation board president said.

He recalled an incident several years ago in which a couple of heavy, concrete benches were broken apart.

“Those benches would have required a lot of work to destroy,” he said, adding the synagogue had to remove them with backhoes because they were irreparable.

Members chose not to replace them to avoid any future destruction and subsequent repair, Birchwood-Glover said. He added that was undetermined who or what had caused the damages, but there was no graffiti and no indication it was done by an anti-Semitic group.

And people moved forward, he said. Perhaps it was similar to how people did in 1941, when the synagogue building was purchased. Or even prior to that, when Jews began arriving in the Valley and meeting.

The latest “series of events” occurred sometime December, he said, when one of the synagogue’s 4-by-8-foot windows facing Alder Street was shot out of its frame overnight and another had holes. Shortly after, a second large window facing the street had more holes almost nightly for two or three weeks, he said, as if someone kept trying to destroy it like the first one. But the window stayed in place.

Birchwood-Glover said the small holes likely were from a BB gun. He also said several police reports were made and the synagogue was one of several buildings struck by the projectiles around the same time, which could suggest the acts weren’t caused by anti-Semitism.

Yet Congregation Beth Israel members were unsure, he said, because they and their ancestors had experienced hatred from anti-Semitic groups.

A few years after World War I, around 1921-1925, there was a re-emergence of anti-Semitic groups — including the Ku Klux Klan — which were prevalent in Walla Walla, Milton-Freewater, Dayton, and Pendleton, according to the book, “Walla Walla: Judaism In A Rural Setting,” by Benjamin Rigberg. Photos are included of the KKK marching in Dayton Days in 1923.

The book cites work from longtime local journalist Vance Orchard and included reminiscences by an older man, who talked about sneaking into the fairground’s then-grandstands “to watch their (KKK’s) robed antics. One time, we saw them burn a cross out in the middle of the arena.”

Orchard reported “hints” of the KKK in the Valley, but the Rigberg’s book stated the man’s quote alluded to something more than that, which contributed to Jews’ fears.

Present day

Another odd thing about the recent vandalism at the synagogue, Birchwood-Glover said, was the several voicemails received at the time with Jewish slurs and garbled voices.

After the incidents, he said police were asked to patrol the area during events, such as a Hanukkah party at the end of December. But, he said, he was unsure they did.

In larger congregations, he said, members who were police helped with security.

“We have chosen not to do that,” he said. “There is a debate on how far to go to protect ourselves. How much is fear-driven?”

However, Congregation Secretary Evan Heisman said not enough information existed to conclude the voicemails and vandalism were related or constituted a hate crime.

“We really don’t know much about what’s going on,” Heisman said. “We don’t know anything to say they’re connected.”

Although Birchwood-Glover and Heisman said no armed security is planned, other measures have been or will be taken. Among them include adding lights outside, as someone now could walk close to the building and hide behind the plants. Another is adding more escape routes than the building’s two main entrances.

A tactic he said the Jewish faith advised in, greeting everyone, also helps.

“You always greet the stranger,” he said, adding greeters could “get a funny vibe” from someone.

To repair vandalism damage and improve security, the congregation assigned tasks to members, such as obtaining estimates and starting a GoFundMe page to raise money. As of Friday, $5,140 was raised, exceeding of its $3,600 goal.

The excess money from the windows’ $800 price tag was to go to such things as the exterior lighting.

“We’re a very horizontal organization,” Birchwood-Glover said. “It keeps everybody involved.”

Additionally, the fundraiser and delegation of tasks among members “let people feel proactive and heal.”

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.