AUGUSTA — It’s not clear whether swastikas spray-painted on two Bangor synagogues were the work of dedicated anti-semites or part of a wider pattern of vandalism in the city.

Also unclear is whether the synagogue vandalism, committed Friday evening, was timed to coincide with the Sabbath during the holiest period of the Jewish calendar.

Whatever the motivations, the incidents call for a combination of support for the targets and education for the broader community, said Rabbi Hillel Katzir, director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center’s Hate Crimes Response Project, which is based at the University of Maine at Augusta.

“We want to make sure that the people responsible for the expressions of hate and bias get the message that that’s not acceptable in Maine,” Katzir said. “We want to make sure that the people who are targeted by those expressions of hate and bias know that they’re not alone. Most Mainers are people of good will who don’t want to see those things expressed here.”

According to the Bangor Daily News, the Beth Abraham and Beth Israel synagogues were defaced Friday with swastikas and other symbols including an upside-down cross and the numbers 666.

Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Beth Israel said his congregation received an immediate outpouring of support and that Bangor police are taking the incidents seriously. Depending on the results of the police’s investigation, the graffiti could be treated as a hate crime, but Goldstein said he believes it was not ideologically motivated.

Regardless of intent, the symbolism has the same effect for victims, Goldstein said, including people who survived the Holocaust or have family members who did not.

Katzir said one of the lessons of the Holocaust is that the lack of resistance to early expressions of hatred enabled the Nazis to escalate violence against Jews and other groups.

“If it is just some dumb kids who don’t know any better or don’t realize what they’ve scrawled on these buildings is hateful, the response of the community needs to educate them that it is hateful, that it’s not acceptable to express oneself in ways that suggest hate, even if they don’t feel it themselves,” Katzir said.

When the congregation he leads, Temple Shalom in Auburn, was the target of similar vandalism about a decade ago, it apparently was the work of ignorant young people, Katzir said.

Anti-Semitic graffiti has appeared in the Augusta area a few times in recent years.

Two Winthrop teenagers painted swastikas on road signs in 2003 to harass a Jewish girl who lived nearby.

After a swastika was painted across a road in Winthrop in 2010, faith leaders organized an interfaith service to denounce the act and reassure people of the community’s tolerance.

In Augusta, a sign for then-Mayor Roger Katz’s campaign for a Maine Senate seat was defaced with anti-Semitic slurs in 2010.

Although some groups have reclaimed offensive words or symbols, swastikas retain their power to wound, Goldstein said.

“The concern of the Jewish community is that the more these symbols are defused of their message, then in a certain way the history is more easily forgotten,” he said.

The role of the Hate Crimes Response Project is to stand with victims of bias no matter their affiliation, Katzir said. He said Bangor’s Jewish community has not requested any specific assistance but have been appreciative of support from around the state.

Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland released a statement Monday condemning the vandalism.

“Any act of destruction to places of worship violates not only the peace of those belonging to that faith tradition but the peace of the entire community,” Malone said in the statement. “An act of vandalism against anyone’s place of worship is an act against all of our worship sites. The use of swastikas, among other symbols, deepens the pain of our Jewish brothers and sisters and we offer our prayers for them.”

Katzir said he’s glad the graffiti was removed quickly, because allowing it to remain is encouraging to the vandals and their sympathizers.

Goldstein said he hopes the crimes in Bangor will deepen the resolve to address the city’s problem with vandalism and the larger problem of hatred. In the meantime, he is encouraged by the calls, email and cards he has received.

“It proves that this kind of activity is not condoned by most of the community and that people recognize in their hearts the importance of combating this type of activity and educating people to prevent it in the future,” Goldstein said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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