WATERVILLE — The voices of men, women and children from all faiths rang out in song and prayer Friday night at Beth Israel Congregation in a show of support for Jews in the wake of an incident last weekend in which a swastika was painted on a large rock at a city-owned park.

More than 200 people from across the state turned out for the interfaith service of healing on a cold night when the temperature hovered near zero.

It was warm inside the synagogue, where Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, of Beth Israel, said it was an honor to have so many people attend the service. Isaacs, who also is assistant professor of studies at Colby College and director of the college’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life, sought to make sense of the swastika incident, which occurred at Quarry Road Recreation Center.

She said no human being is completely good or bad and everyone struggles with that dichotomy.

“Unfortunately, in this previous week, the evil urge got the best of one of us,” she said. “We’re here today to embrace our good urge and show the best of who we are.”

Police are investigating the painting of the swastika, an emblem used by the Nazi party during the Holocaust, on the rock near the entrance to the Devil’s Chair hiking trail.

Police Chief Joseph Massey, who attended Friday night’s service, said earlier in the day that police continue to work on the case.

“We have not identified who left the swastika up there on the rock,” he said.

The incident, reported to police Dec.10, led City Manager Michael Roy and Mayor Nick Isgro to post a message on the city’s online web page saying Waterville will not stand for such activity.

“In situations like this the city of Waterville stands firmly united against any form of hate and intolerance,” the post says. “From the arrival of the Franco-Canadians and the Lebanese Maronite Catholics to our proud Jewish community and beyond, Waterville has always been, remains, and will always be an open and accepting community that will not be torn asunder by individuals or groups who believe otherwise.”

As of early Friday evening, the city’s Facebook message had garnered 600 likes, 124 shares and about 40 comments.

Isaacs told the congregation Friday that she feels blessed to be in Waterville, where people are caring and supportive. Earlier in the week, Isaacs was at the White House in Washington, delivering the invocation at a Hanukkah reception hosted by President Barack Obama.

To illustrate just how open and inclusive the Waterville community is, the 33-year-old rabbi, who two years ago was named one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis by the Jewish Daily Forward, told a personal story of the journey that led her to Waterville.

She said she was ordained as a rabbi five years ago and decided to be ordained in the conservative movement. She was the first openly lesbian rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

As she became ordained, she began to worry that she would not be able to find a job. She recalled being told to prepare herself that it was a real possibility no one would hire her, but if she did get a job it would likely be in New York or California. But those who warned her turned out to be wrong. She was embraced by not only Beth Israel, but also Colby and the Waterville community.

“Look what happened,” she said. “I ended up in Waterville, Maine. That’s not something to be taken for granted.

Waterville is special place, she said, with decent, authentic people who care about each other.

“It’s personally special to me, and I think it’s empirically special,” she said.

She continued to demonstrate just how unusual the Waterville community is. The synagogue’s water fountain was given to Beth Israel by the Lebanese Youth Organization in the city; the kosher meat, by Joseph’s Market, which until recently was owned and run by a Lebanese family.

“How many Jewish communities can say we are sustained by the Lebanese community in the town?” she asked. “Believe me, we are the only one.”

Hate crimes, Isaacs said, happen everywhere; but the quality of a community is assessed not by the bad things that happen there, but how the community responds to such incidents.

“This is how we respond,” she said, referring to the large gathering of support Friday.

The Rev. Thomas Blackstone, of the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church, offered a reading and said it was his privilege to represent his church in standing solidly with Beth Israel and anyone else who is threatened by hateful actions.

“Today we are all Jews,” Blackstone said. “A threat to any one of us is a threat to all of us.”

Sakhi Khan, Muslim advisor at Colby College, issued an English translation of a verse from the Quran about how mankind was created so that people may know each other and not despise each other.

Isaacs noted that Friday’s service was planned as an interfaith event but it also occurred on the Jewish sabbath. She and Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El, of Augusta, led the congregation in song and prayer. Asch implored people to reach out to each other.

“This service is an important coming together but it is just the beginning,” she said.

Jing Ye meditation advisor at Colby College, asked the congregation to repeat silently after each line she recited, while tapping a tiny bell that chimed softly through the synagogue.

“May I be at peace,” she said. “May my heart remain open. … May I be healed, May I be a source of healing for all beings.”

The Rev. Christina Cataldo, of the Winthrop Congregational Church, spoke, as did Kurt Nelson, dean of religious and spiritual life at Colby.

Sitting in the audience was Sen. Scott Cyrway who said he attended the service to support Beth Israel and show his concern for people’s safety. A former Kennebec County sheriff’s deputy, Cyrway said he investigated many instances of vandalism and it is important to recognize how important it is that communities be safe places. The swastika painted on the rock represents a great disrespect to the community and country, according to Cyrway.

Bill Basford stood in the foyer of the synagogue, where it was standing room only. He said he attended to show support for Beth Israel.

Meanwhile, in response to the swastika incident, the City Council on Tuesday will consider approving a resolution expressing the council’s solidarity with citizens from all races, religions and creeds, against all forms of hate, discrimination and intimidation.

The proposed resolution says the city has had a long history of welcoming populations from a diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds and continues to welcome and accept people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

The proposed resolution was drawn up in response to “a recent incident of vandalism against members of the Jewish faith that took place at the Quarry Road Recreation Area,” it says.

Racially and/or religiously-inspired acts of vandalism create an atmosphere of fear among people targeted by such acts and the city refuses to accept acts of hatred, discrimination and intimidation as a normal part of life in the city, according to the proposal.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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