RALEIGH, N.C. — Rabbi Eric Solomon has been crossing the same pedestrian bridge over Interstate 540 on his morning runs for about a decade. He’s accustomed to seeing graffiti on the overpass fairly often. Most days, he ignores it and moves on.
During a run on January 10, however, Solomon was stunned when he came across two large swastikas that had been spray-painted on the bridge and one of its walls. Next to them, someone had spray-painted the words “MAGA,” “Trump 2024” and “Burn.”
“It is a sign of absolute hatred,” Solomon said in an interview with The News & Observer on Wednesday. “So when I saw that, I thought to myself, ‘This is beyond the line. This is not just some kind of silliness or someone doing something definitely illegal, but not such a big deal, to, ‘Wow, I need to do something about it.’”
Solomon, who has served as the rabbi of Beth Meyer Synagogue in North Raleigh since 2005, contacted his city council member, Patrick Buffkin, as well as city and state officials. He also posted the images on Facebook and Nextdoor, where they received significant attention, including from people who were so offended, they were ready to come down to the bridge and scrub off the graffiti themselves.
The swastikas and other graffiti were removed within a few days, but about a week later, Solomon found a smaller, less noticeable swastika painted on another part of the bridge. It wasn’t clear if it had been left there recently, or whether he hadn’t noticed it earlier.
Regardless, the graffiti has put the local Jewish community on alert, he said, adding that people are troubled and afraid but have also been resilient.
“We’re very sensitive and aware, and we realize we have to speak up and be clear,” Solomon said. “And not only against the Jewish community, but really any community...that is being publicly attacked.”
Three large synagogues, including Beth Meyer, fall within Buffkin’s district, which covers almost all of North Raleigh. After Solomon brought the graffiti to his attention the day he spotted it, Buffkin raised the issue during a virtual city council meeting Tuesday, when Raleigh Police Chief Estella Patterson gave a presentation on the city’s crime.
“We all recognize hate can be found anywhere, but it’s not welcome in Raleigh,” Buffkin said in an interview. “We have to be ever vigilant for this kind of sentiment, lest it grow in our community. We don’t want that. We’re a welcoming, open community.”
Texas synagogue standoff
The graffiti already had prompted the Raleigh Jewish community to be on alert when news emerged on Jan. 15 about four people being taken hostage at Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, about 15 miles northeast of Fort Worth.
The standoff between the suspect, a 44-year-old British citizen named Malik Faisal Akram, and law enforcement officials lasted nearly 11 hours, The New York Times reported. The hostages, three congregants and the lead rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, were all able to escape unharmed. One of the hostages was released prior to the other three successfully escaping on their own.
The high-profile incident further rattled Jews across the world. Thursday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it considers the standoff as “an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community,” The New York Times reported, reversing its initial statement on the hostage situation.
“This could have happened at any synagogue in the country, and that is heartbreaking and scary, and shocking, too,” said Phillip Brodsky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary.
The threats facing synagogues and a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years have prompted Jewish organizations across the country to conduct security trainings and invest in measures like bag checks, he said.
Security staffers have also become a ubiquitous sight in the Jewish community, Brodsky said, adding that every Jewish organization he has worked at since 2005 has had security.
In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League recorded a total of 2,024 anti-Semitic incidents ranging from vandalism to harassment and assault. That was down 4% from 2019, but still made 2020 the third-highest year since the ADL started tracking incidents in 1979, the organization said in a report on its website.
About 16% of the anti-Semitic incidents were attributed to “known extremist groups or individuals inspired by extremist ideology,” the ADL said, which mostly included white supremacist groups.
Cytron-Walker told The New York Times he and the other hostages were able to escape due to multiple security training sessions he had participated in over the years.
One of those sessions, held in August, was conducted by Secure Community Network, The New York Times reported.
The nonprofit has trained Beth Meyer synagogue staff and congregants as well, and held a briefing with synagogue security staff on Sunday, Solomon said. The presentation was scheduled prior to the hostage crisis that unfolded in Texas the day before, he added.
The synagogue has also received training from Community Security Service, another nonprofit that provides security to Jewish organizations nationwide. Between both nonprofits, Beth Meyer staff and congregants have been taught basic survival skills, Solomon said, including how to spot suspicious behavior and how to evacuate in an emergency.
The congregation has also prepared for active shooter situations.
“I didn’t sign up to go to rabbinical school to do active shooter trainings,” Solomon said. “I went to teach the Bible, the Torah, to pray, to do justice.”
However, Solomon said, “one of the great powers” of the situation is the many members of the congregation and staff who aren’t Jewish.
“They work for our synagogue as a profession, and because they care, they really are beautiful souls,” he continued. “Some of them are the ones on the front lines of this, in a sense, because they are the person who opens the door, or they’re the person who receives people.”
Jewish people have to accept at some level “that this is our history,” Solomon said. But someone who isn’t Jewish is “really choosing to take that slight additional risk, and it’s incredibly admirable.”