In the early hours of Shabbat morning, February 4, 2017, a masked assailant drove up to iconic Chicago Loop Synagogue, a high-profile synagogue in the heart of Chicago’s downtown business district. The vandal stuck two signs depicting swastikas on the front doors, then smashed the synagogue’s front plate glass window before driving away.
The Chicago Loop Synagogue vandalism was the latest in a relentless series of other assaults. The week before, local Jewish Community Centers were closed for the third time in recent weeks when anonymous callers made bomb threats. Swastikas had been found in schools, scrawled on the wall of our favorite local library where we take our kids, even found carved inside Chicago’s Holocaust Museum.
“Was all this hate here all along?” my husband asked in anguish. “Where’s it all coming from?”
The following day, passersby saw a curious sight: a young Muslim family with a five year old, a toddler and a baby in tow, bringing flowers and a homemade card to the synagogue. “With Love, Marwa, Sulayman, and Dawud,” the card read. They affixed the note to the building, along with the flowers. Soon, other cards and letters joined the wall, as Chicagoans left messages of love and support.
As calls and visitors poured in, the synagogue’s president, Lee Zoldan, knew she wanted to do something to connect with the many people who were reaching out to help. She invited all of Chicago to a meeting at midday on Wednesday, February 8.
When we pulled up in front of the synagogue half an hour early, a huge crowd was already milling about, reading the cards now pinned up behind the brand-new plate glass window. The atmosphere was electric, as more and more people from all corners of the city piled into the shul. The shul was packed and an overflow room was hastily organized.
I asked Barbara Burchjolla what had moved her to come. “I grew up in a very Jewish area,” she explained, “and hearing that a synagogue had been attacked with swastikas reminded me of what happened to the parents of some childhood friends who survived the Holocaust. The hate is so palpable in the country now.”
Barbara Burchjolla and Debra Shore
She came to show solidarity. “Everyone who lives here is part of the community.”
That was a refrain I heard over and over as I milled through the crowd. “The hate was always under the surface, but now it feels more empowered,” said Helen Lysen, a young graphic designer who’d come to take a stand.
One young Muslim mother, wearing a long dress and a headscarf, brought her young baby and stood in the hall, rocking and soothing him as he cried. Another young Muslim woman wearing a bright pink headscarf told me, “I’m here as a Muslim to say this is unacceptable and to stand in solidarity with my Jewish neighbors.”
Her children had brought one of the first notes to the synagogue the Sunday after the attack. “Last weekend, as my husband and I thought how we wanted to be neighborly after this attack and show support, our five-year-old son asked if he could make a card for the synagogue.”
I asked an elderly man what moved him to come to the Loop Synagogue. He was surprised by the question. “Love moved me." Turns out he was Rev. Myron McCoy, a prominent religious leader in the city and pastor of the church down the street.
Lee Zoldan, the synagogue president, recalled, “On the night of the attack when my husband and I stood on Clark Street in the middle of the night with only a policeman, we felt very alone. Now, we don’t feel so alone.”