Late in the evening on Dec. 26, the third night of Hanukka, the South Orange public menora located in Spiotta Park was vandalized. Video footage from a security camera released by the police department shows three people who appear to be teenagers walking up and down the street past the menora. One eventually takes a striped cane and swings at the menora until the light bulbs, which had been lit, were crushed. Two of the individuals ran from the scene, but the main offender seemed less concerned than the others, seemingly strolling out of the camera shot.
A passerby reported the crime to the police department the next morning. The South Orange Recreation Department replaced the bulbs that day and the footage was released Dec. 29.
Despite the video, there are no new leads in the case, according to South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll. At press time, he told NJJN that detectives were spreading out to local schools — in South Orange and “surrounding communities” — to speak with counselors and other administrators, as well as to the Youth Aid Bureau, the police agency that works most closely with teens.
“I was disturbed and obviously upset to hear that the menora was vandalized, but I appreciated that the village Department of Public Works and Recreation Department responded so quickly by repairing it and replacing the bulbs,” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El, one of three synagogues in the town.
On Dec. 29, the sixth night of Hanukka and three days after the vandalism, a previously planned public menora lighting was held. Between 60 and 70 people attended, including Police Sergeant Adrian Acevedo. The ceremony lasted about an hour, and representatives from all three South Orange congregations — Temple Sharey-Tefilo Israel, Oheb Shalom Congregation, and Congregation Beth El — were in attendance, along with town officials.
“It was heartwarming to see so many people gathering to dispel the darkness of vandalism rooted in lack of consideration and respect for the religious symbols of others,” said Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. “By lighting the Hanukka menora as a community, the light surrounding us all was increased.”
A similar act of Hanukka vandalism occurred in Arizona, a few days after the South Orange incident, when a large menora in front of a private home was twisted into the shape of a swastika.
The local vandalism comes on the heels of a string of anti-Semitic incidents at South Orange Middle School, most recently graffiti featuring a swastika found in a student bathroom.
On Dec. 1, members of the Association of Holocaust Organizations, an international network for the advancement of Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, issued its response to what it called “the surge” in recent months of “unabashed racism and hate speech — including blatant anti-Semitism and attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, as well as other targeted groups.” Some 93 institutions and 73 individuals signed the statement, which urged “all elected officials as well as all civic and religious leaders to forcefully and explicitly condemn the rise in hate speech and any attacks on our democratic principles.” The statement called on media and social media platforms to refuse to provide a stage for hate groups, thus contributing to the normalization of their agendas. The statement further said, “We call upon all people of good conscience to be vigilant, to not be afraid, and to speak out.”
In 2015 there were 137 anti-Semitic incidents reported across New Jersey, a 28 percent rise over 2014, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has not yet released numbers for 2016.
Anyone with information about the South Orange menora vandalism should contact Detective Lieutenant Brian McGuire at 973-763-3000, ext. 7788.