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Continued Crises Plague Resolute Shul

July 17, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Folks help clean up the playground at Germantown Jewish Centre.

For the congregants and staff at Germantown Jewish Centre, the past six months have been challenging, to say the least.

Since a fire back in January -- which was eventually ruled an arson, and destroyed a preschool classroom and left nearby areas smoke-damaged -- the Mount Airy synagogue has faced several challenges, the latest of which is a flooded sanctuary earlier this month.

"We're in another massive cleanup," reported executive director Rachel Gross.

The flood occurred after a pipe burst in the ceiling above the sanctuary, soaking the back part of the room. While it didn't destroy seating, books or Torahs, it did force synagogue leaders to close the room, which they hope to reopen for High Holidays.

In the meantime, services are being held in a chapel inside the building.

The flood came on the heels of a different incident in April, where staff members discovered that broken glass was buried in the sand underneath the shul's outdoor playground.

"There was no way that this was casually some people drinking beers and breaking their glasses -- this was something else," attested Rabbi Leonard Gordon. "That was really something that says somebody's really trying to hurt children."

If that weren't enough, on May 4, someone painted a swastika on a congregant's home just a few blocks from the synagogue on W. Ellet Street. That followed the appearance of a spray-painted swastika on the synagogue's outside walls in November, just two weeks before the fire.

Gordon urged people not to make rash judgments and connect the incidents, since the swastikas were different colors and did not resemble one another.

"They don't look similar, but swastikas are swastikas," said Gordon. "It's a hate symbol that makes people anxious, and was done with intent to intimidate and shock."

Gross noted that the congregant whose house was attacked often draws Jewish-related pictures and phrases on the sidewalk in chalk, such as "Shabbat Shalom."

"That's probably why her house was targeted," said Gross.

Gordon said that a meeting took place last month for congregational leaders to receive an update from the police commissioner's office, as well as the local police precinct. He said that a representative from the Anti-Defamation League was also present.

The rabbi, who stated that he and Gross have been in regular contact with police, relayed that the authorities have made it clear that there's no indication any of the incidents are connected.

The investigation into the fire is still ongoing, according to police and fire officials, but Gordon felt that they have "kept it as a high priority item." He estimated that the damage from the fire and the flood have topped out at more than $1 million.

Even after so many incidents, the leadership at Germantown Jewish Centre continued to tout Mount Airy as a neighborhood of caring people who celebrate diversity, perhaps because of shows of affection like what happened on June 8, when more than 100 congregants, local residents and friends removed the glass-infused sand from the playground.

"That was a great moment for us," said Gross. "We felt really proud, and really felt like we were a part of something."

"It was a very uncomfortably hot day, and people came out and did the work till it was done," added Gordon.

Then, just three days later, the sanctuary flooded.

Synagogue leaders called in the same crew that helped clean up after the fire, and are focused on getting the sanctuary up and running for the High Holidays.

As for the playground, it remains closed until it can be resurfaced, which should be finished within the next few weeks.

To move forward, synagogue leaders are also discussing the possibility of installing security cameras and increasing the lighting around the property. Police have already increased patrols in the area, according to Gordon.

Said the rabbi: "It shows the necessity that we should all look out for each other."

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