By Alex Bridges - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- The Beth El Congregation didn't draw attention when vandals sprayed Nazi-related graffiti on its synagogue in the city in December.
But the incident spurred the congregation and other community leaders to take action with help through the Coalition for Racial Unity's annual prayer vigil. Area religious and ethnic groups have come together with the coalition to host "Community United against Anti-Semitism and Racism" on March 21 at 3 p.m. in the Health Professions Building of Shenandoah University.
Jonathan Brown, Beth El's rabbi, recalled coming to the synagogue on Fairmont Road and seeing swastikas painted on windows, a sign and on the parking lot pavement near praise for Hitler, albeit misspelled. The synagogue reported the vandalism to law enforcement and the Anti-Defamation League, and the FBI investigated the incident as a possible hate crime, Brown said.
Congregation members met with the coalition and others in the ensuing weeks to plan the vigil.
"Our intentions were two-fold: One was to make a clear statement to the community that this is not acceptable behavior, and that a lot of different folks have experienced similar behavior and we'd like to unite in protesting it," Brown said.
Organizers hope the speakers for the event can boost attendance. The vigil, which will include prayers at the beginning and end, also will look at the issue's ethnic and religious sides, Brown said.
Keynote speaker Melanie Maron Pell, the director of the American Jewish Committee of Washington, D.C., will talk about mitigating the effects of racism and anti-Semitism and changing the culture that promotes it.
C. Douglas Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, will facilitate a discussion on how faith-based groups welcome strangers and respond to violence directed against houses of worship. The Coalition for Racial Unity and the local NAACP chapter will facilitate a second session on racial and ethnic discrimination and hatred.
Brown said he hopes the vigil instills a few thoughts in people.
"One is the awareness these nasty things do happen here," Brown said. "One is the awareness that a lot of people would like them not to happen and are working hard in a unified and coordinated way to help them stop happening, which involves education ... diversity.
"Maybe the bottom line is this is a reaffirmation of the fact that every single human being is created in God's image," Brown said. "They're worthy of our respect and support."
Other participating groups include Valley Interfaith Council, Islamic Society of Winchester, Namaste Shenandoah, Downtown Clergy Fellowship and Shenandoah University's Office of Spiritual Life and Department of Religion.
Contact Brown at 667-6335, Beth El Congregation at 667-1043, or e-mail the Coalition for Racial Unity at email@example.com for more information.