BANGOR, Maine — Members of Bangor’s Jewish community reacted Sunday with sadness and outrage over the spray painted vandalism of two synagogues, calling it a hate crime but stressing it is an isolated occurrence in the city’s history.
“The only thing I can say is I know there’s been a rash of graffiti in the city. Graffiti is one thing, but when it starts becoming swastikas on synagogues, it’s no longer just graffiti. It’s a hate crime,” said Norman Minsky, a Bangor attorney.
The graffiti, which was applied Friday night, included swastikas — a Nazi and anti-Semitic symbol — and an upside-down cross with the numbers “6 6 6” positioned at the top and sides.
“It’s a horrible thing to see, of course,” said Bill Small, former Beth Israel president. “I was a professor of German literature and language and I can’t stand to see the swastika, especially plastered on a synagogue.
“Whether it was a serious, anti-Semitic attack or not, I don’t know.”
Neither police nor Jewish leaders could be sure what the motivation of the vandal or vandals was.
“My reaction is that whether or not the perpetrator or perpetrators had ideological motivation, the act itself is a hate crime by virtue of the content of the vandalism,” said Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Beth Israel Synagogue. “And that it not only reflects on the growing problem of vandalism throughout the city, but it also reminds us all of the resolve and effort needed to combat hate and ignorance.”
Maine has seven hate crime-related statutes in place, one of which ( A.M.R.S. 507) covers desecration and defacement of places of worship and makes such an act a Class D crime.
Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said how this crime is treated depends on how the case develops.
“If we caught someone that we could pin that on, the attorney general would look at it to determine if it’s a hate crime,” Edwards said. “I would say it qualifies only because of the concern and fear it’s generated in the Jewish community.”
Minsky was one of the people in attendance for services at Beth Israel when the initial vandalism occurred at both Beth Israel and Beth Abraham synagogues on York Street around 7 p.m. Friday.
“Apparently they came back again a couple hours later,” said Minsky, who said he arrived around 6 p.m. and noticed smaller graffiti on the wall of the front stairway, but not the swastikas or upside-down cross. “The original stuff I saw on Beth Israel were small and on the stairs out front. The other stuff was added later.”
A vandal or vandals spray painted offensive graffiti on the front staircases, pillars and signs of the two synagogues.
“We went to service at Beth Israel from 5:30 to 6:30 and saw nothing,” said Small. “The custodian was there and left for 20 minutes around 7, and when he came back, he saw it. He called me right away.”
He also called the police.
Bangor police Sgt. James Buckley said a call came around 7:30 p.m. Friday to report finding the vandalism.
“Everybody was shocked and some people immediately said it fits into what’s going on in the Mideast, but I’m not sure I would go that far,” said Small.
Minsky’s family includes relatives on his father’s side in Europe whose lives were affected by the Nazis during World War II.
“It’s been quite awhile since something like this has happened in Bangor,” Minsky said. “It’s been a problem nationally for a number of years, but it’s a minor problem compared to what’s happening in Europe right now.”
Bangor police officers said graffiti and incidents of vandalism have been on the rise over the last week or so.
“I believe it has,” Buckley said. “We’ve had a lot of tagging the last few weeks.
“Over the last few days, we had a graffiti complaint at 615 Broadway on September 20 and and on Boyd Street at the Strickland House the very next day.”
Sgt. Edwards said a lot of these graffiti/vandalism incidents appear to be concentrated on Bangor’s east side.
“We’ve had five other random acts like this on ballfields and businesses. We’ve had so much, I think a lot of them are related, and it seems like it’s the same guy or group of people,” Edwards said. “This is so hard for us to catch someone in the act of doing. Somebody knows who is doing this, and we are waiting for a tip to come through to give us a break on this.”
The Bangor City Council recently has held discussions on graffiti and ways to limit instances and penalize offenders, also known as “taggers.”
“I think it’s disgusting,” said Bangor City Councilor Charlie Longo, who lives nearby the synagogues at The Terraces apartment complex. “I think it’s despicable that people spend their time this way. We need to hold these people accountable for this kind of vandalism.”
“We’re looking at revisiting the topic in a couple months,” he added. “City Solicitor Norm Heitmann is working on some ordinance language to penalize offenders, and we’re also looking at other ways to prohibit or punish this kind of stuff without ordinances.”
Most of the graffiti had been either washed off or painted over at both synagogues by Sunday, although Rabbi Goldstein said Beth Israel’s glass-encased sign had not been cleaned up yet.
Rabbi Goldstein said it’s important to keep things in historical perspective.
“We’re celebrating 100 years in this building this year. From people I’ve spoken to, this is the only incident like this here in recent memory,” Goldstein said. “This does not reflect the feeling of the Bangor community and is an isolated incident historically.
“We should remember that one of the things that makes this such a nice city to live in is that people work together here to make it the best it can be.”
The Anti-Defamation League released a statement Sunday night condemning the anti-Semitic vandalism.
“ADL condemns this use of swastikas and other graffiti at synagogues. That this happened during the Jewish High Holy Days is a sad reminder that anti-Semitism is alive, and deeply offends all people who value communities of respect,” Derrek L. Shulman, Regional Director of ADL New England, said. “We commend the Bangor Police Department for prioritizing its investigation into this crime.”
Anyone with information about the vandalism is asked to contact the Bangor Police Department at 947-7384.