S.F. synagogues sign defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti

A swastika and other anti-Semitic graffiti were scrawled in black ink onto a streetside directional sign shared by two synagogues in San Francisco last week, and the incident is being investigated as a hate crime, the S.F. Police department has confirmed.

The sign before it was vandalized

On the morning of May 30, a recently installed sign pointing drivers to Congregation Beth Israel Judea and Or Shalom Jewish Community was found tagged with “Heil Hiter” (sic) and the phrase “death to the Jews” written in French. Only the Or Shalom portion of the signage was defaced.

The sign is located at 625 Brotherhood Way, the nearly 50-year home of Beth Israel Judea, which has been sharing its space with Or Shalom since February. The sign went up 10 days before the vandalism occurred.

The crime initially was reported to the police by security officials at Brandeis Hillel Day School, which is located next door. In an email to the community, head of school Donald Zimring noted that the graffiti was “amateurishly drawn” and that the sign was “immediately covered.”

“No child, no parent, no family member [arriving at BHDS that morning] saw it,” said Corey Weinstein, Or Shalom’s board president. “Those of us at Or Shalom and Beth Israel Judea are very grateful for that. School officials responded quickly and without hesitation, and did what was the right thing to do.”

Weinstein said the graffiti was removed before the start of Shabbat, “with Windex.”

The case “is being investigated by our Special Investigations Division, which does handle hate crimes,” said officer Gordon Shyy, an SFPD spokesman. No suspect had been identified as of early this week, he added.

Weinstein said the vandalism was something Or Shalom “has not experienced in our 23 years, nor has Beth Israel Judea. We’re all pretty shocked and dismayed.” However, on a positive note, he added, Or Shalom had a community retreat in Petaluma over the weekend, attended by 70 people. “We were able to talk about it and work through people’s feelings on it,” he said.

The sign with some of the anti-Semitic graffiti

Nancy Appel, the associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office in San Francisco, said two things about the vandalism stood out.

First, “the swastika was accurately drawn,” going in the clockwise direction, she said, noting that casual taggers often get it wrong. Also, the anti-Semitic phrase in French — something she had never seen in the Bay Area — made her think the vandal was alluding to the May 24 murders at the Brussels Jewish Museum and the subsequent beating of two Jewish men in the suburbs of Paris, even though the phrase was misspelled “Mort Auf Juifs.”

“That’s how the graffiti struck me,” she said. “But I am only speculating.”

Appel said cases involving anti-Semitic graffiti don’t occur very often in the Bay Area, or are not reported. The last one she recalled was in January in Morgan Hill, when a 15-year-old boy was arrested at around 3 a.m. after he “allegedly went on a drunken vandalism spree that included painting a swastika on [Congregation Emeth] property,” according to the Gilroy Dispatch.

Also in January, posters railing against Oakland mayoral candidate Libby Schaaf included an image of a swastika scrawled on her forehead.

“The FBI contacted me regarding this matter and did open an investigation over concern that a group of neo-Nazis may have been responsible,” Schaaf wrote in an email to J. on June 1. “The investigation has not reached any conclusions to my knowledge.”

Appel noted that it is “really, really difficult” for law enforcement officials to find perpetrators in anti-Semitic graffiti cases, unless there is a witness or video evidence. Officer Shyy urged people with information to contact the hate crimes unit at (415) 553-1133 or the department’s anonymous tip line at (415) 575-4444.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.