After the JCC of Northern Virginia (JCCNV) was targeted in an act of vandalism earlier this month, the community responded with an event celebrating unity and inclusion on Sunday, Oct. 14. Drawing almost 500 attendees, the "CommUNITY Gathering" featured interfaith leaders as well as politicians such as Del. Eileen Filler-Corn and U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly.
A Shocking Scene
On Shabbat morning Oct. 6, 19 swastikas were found spray painted on the walls of the JCCNV. This is the second time in 18 months that the community center, which is located in Fairfax and serves the third-largest Jewish community in the United States, was defaced.
In an Oct. 9 press release, Fairfax County police released security footage of the incident and called for the public’s help in identifying the perpetrator.
JCCNV President David Yaffe arrived on the scene shortly after the vandalism was discovered.
“We looked at the sight of 19 swastikas with dismay, as this was not the first time that we had been violated with similar defacement," said Yaffe. "We were reminded by the vandalism that there are people in this area who share neither community values nor the American dream of opportunity, diversity, and inclusion.”
“There was a good amount of people going in and out,” he said. “It was pretty bad.”
Others who witnessed the scene —some with their young children — described feelings of shock and repulsion. Erin Hildreth was taking her 7-year-old daughter to her weekly swim lesson when the two saw the defaced building.
“We are not Jewish, but it was still so enraging” she said. “My daughter is young, she didn’t know what it means, but it was very upsetting to see.”
Shortly after they arrived, Hildreth said someone mistakenly pulled the fire alarm, adding to the highly charged environment.
“We weren’t sure if there was something else going on,” she recalled. “But the staff and police were awesome.”
Adi Eilat Crowley, billing and accounts manager for the JCC, said she was dropping by the office early on Saturday with her 9-year-old daughter when they saw the markings on the building. She said she was shocked to see the hateful symbols spray painted on the building, especially since a large part of her family was lost in the Holocaust.
A week after the event, her daughter is still asking whether the perpetrator has been caught. “A 9 year old doesn’t need to understand what it means to be hated because of being a Jew,” she said. “Why does she need to feel these things in 2018 in America?”
Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber said that while the vandalism was heartbreaking to see, it’s important to remember that the act was committed by a single individual looking to provoke a reaction.
“When something like this happens, we need to show our resilience,” said Halber. “No one was hurt, there was no disruption to our activities, and today we’re moving forward to continue meeting the needs of this vibrant community.”
The police are taking this matter very seriously, he added, and he’s certain the perpetrator will be apprehended. “We’ve had a great ongoing relationship with law enforcement over the years. Their response was excellent, the process has worked in the past, and it will work again this time.”
Denouncing Hate, Embracing Inclusivity
While the incident was upsetting, community and staff members say that the warm response from the surrounding community has been reassuring.
“People have been coming by, sending flowers, there was a 'Chalk Hooligans' drawing on the sidewalk, and some elected officials even stopped by to show their support,” Yaffe added.
Despite the shock, Crowley maintained the act will not take away from her community’s openness and inclusiveness.
“Our JCC is not religious, it’s a community center,” she said. “We have Muslims, Hindus, Christians — it’s for everybody, so to hurt it isn’t just hurting Jews. It’s hurting everybody.”
“We are strong here, and we will continue showing that we’re human and welcome everybody at the JCC,” she added.
The Oct. 14 CommUNITY Gathering featured speakers of different backgrounds, including the Rev. Dan Roschke of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, the Rev. Dr. David Lindsey of the Little River United Church, and a written message from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both of Virginia.
“The JCC is a pillar of the Northern Virginia community,” Northam wrote. “While I am saddened by the reason for this gathering, I take heart in the knowledge that you are united together in the face of this hatred. I urge you to continue on in the spirit of tikkun olam [repairing the world]."
Audience member and NV Rides Manager Jennifer Kanarek said it was touching to see the entire community come together to show solidarity with the Jewish community.
“The [vandalism] was so upsetting to see, but the upshot was to see how many people came together to denounce hate and reinforce the fact that our community stands together,” she said.
By Anis Modi
Anis Modi is a staff writer for Kol HaBirah.