ADL on swastikas: 'Surge of incidents we’ve seen in the last two years is not slowing down'

Swastikas, symbols of ethnic and religious hatred made infamous by Hitler’s murderous regime in Germany during the mid-20th Century, have again been found defacing property in Ridgefield, undermining the town’s sense of unity and tolerance.

Three swastikas were found on a wooden fence in Ballard Park, reported to police at 4:22 p.m. Wednesday, May 23.

It is the seventh reported incident of anti-Semitic or racist hate speech or symbols in Ridgefield over the last year and a half — three in Ballard Park, three at Ridgefield High School, and in January swastikas defaced two Main Street buildings, the Aldrich Museum and the Masonic Temple beside town hall.

“I am sad and disappointed but not feeling scared or threatened,” Rabbi David Reiner of Temple Shir Shalom told The Press, echoing sentiments he’d shared in a letter to his more than 300-member congregation.

“Witnessing swastikas in a public space is upsetting and unsettling,” he said in the letter. “The police have emphasized that, as in the past, there have been no specific references or threats to our congregation or members.”

Reiner wrote to Temple Shir Shalom members after being alerted by Rabbi Rachel Bearman from Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown that there was a thread about the hate-symbols on Facebook, where hundreds of people had reacted.

“From the responses that I have received to this and past messages, I sense that people share my frustration and disappointment,” Reiner told The Press Friday. “I think that some folks have safety concerns, though the police have repeatedly shared that there is nothing to suggest a threat against our congregation or Jewish people in town.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he’d contacted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and he’ll remain involved in the town’s response.

“Police are investigating and we will continue to educate,” Marconi said.

Largest increase on record

It was November 2016 when swastikas found painted on a wall in Ballard Park started the run of seven incidents.

The Ridgefield incidents come in the context of rising anti-Semitism and other bigotry around the nation. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a 57% increase nationwide, from 1,267 incidents of anti-Semitism reported in 2016 to 1,986 incidents reported in 2017 — “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since the ADL started tracking such data in 1979,” the organization said.

In Connecticut, there were 49 anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2017, following 38 incidents reported in 2016 — a 29% increase — according to the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut.

Andy Friedland from the Connecticut ADL said numbers hadn’t been released on incidents in the first half of 2018 but “all indications show that the surge of incidents we’ve seen in the last two years is not slowing down,” he said.

Strengthening bonds

Rabbi Reiner said he felt Ridgefield is reacting to the repeated incidents.

“Town leaders, including First Selectman Marconi, are speaking about these incidents differently than two years ago,” he said. “I also see a cumulatively positive effect in the relationship between Congregation Shir Shalom and the Ridgefield Police Department, even a model of the relationships that should exist between police and the community they serve.

“Two years ago, officers would drive through our lot on patrol. Now they stop and visit our building, greet our students and parents, especially after graffiti incidents,” Reiner said. “These visits are comforting and show that the police are attuned to and concerned about these incidents.”

Friedland of the Connecticut ADL recalled that in December 2016, after the initial incident earlier that fall, the group had led a program, “Strengthening the Bonds of our Community,” for 50 Ridgefield town leaders, including department heads, members of several town boards and commissions, all school principals, and the superintendent of schools.

The ADL also conducted a “World of Difference” diversity and tolerance education program for students at Ridgefield High School. And the ADL offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for swastika graffiti in town.

Through it all, Friedland said, the town has been supportive.

“Ridgefield town leadership and police have taken these incidents very seriously and have understood how they are more than simple vandalism but an attack on a community and an attempt to make people feel unsafe and unwelcome in their hometown,” Friedland said.

“We often say that it’s not the fact that an incident happened that’s a reflection of a town’s character, because they happen everywhere. The true character comes out in the response, which in Ridgefield’s case has been a learning opportunity and has brought people in that town closer together.”

Stand Up to Hate

Sarah de Lange, a Ridgefield High School junior, discovered a swastika carved into a table at RHS in the fall of 2017. Now she’s organizing a “Stand Up to Hate” rally in Ballard Park on Sunday, June 10, from 2 to 7 p.m. The latest incident isn’t changing her outlook.

“It makes me sad, but I have hope,” she said. “The bad in our town is far outweighed by the good, and I’m confident that the strength of our community can overcome this. We can overwhelm the hate with our happiness when we all come together. We are not backing down.”