Set back from a main street on one side, and obscured by trees and shrubbery on another, it’s easy to miss Torah V’Emunah, an Orthodox temple in a residential North Miami Beach neighborhood.
“We don’t even have a sign in front of the synagogue,” said Miriam Bensinger, the rabbi’s wife. “People in the Jewish community know what it is.”
The synagogue may be ordinary, but it’s become a center of controversy this week after authorities say vandals spray-painted a swastika and the word “Hamas” in bold red letters early Monday morning. Over the weekend, a Miami Beach family’s two cars were defaced in another anti-Semitic incident.
“It’s very painful,” said a soft-spoken Rabbi Yerucham Bensinger of Torah V’Emunah. “Right now, there are a lot of angry and upset people for the desecration that took place.”
The vandalism comes amid persistent tensions in the Middle East. Since Israel’s ground incursion on the Gaza strip began on July 8, more than 1,400 Palestinians have been killed and 6,700 injured. Israel has suffered 59 casualties, including 56 soldiers and three civilians.
Now, members of Miami’s Jewish community fear the conflict is stirring anger locally. On Thursday, July 31 at 6:30 p.m., the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and local partners plan to hold an Israel solidarity rally at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach.
Authorities have not made any arrests, but the police have increased area patrols. “These separate crimes, just like a lot of other crimes, depend on the community getting involved and helping us by calling into the Crime Stoppers line,” said Detective Alvaro A. Zabaleta with the Miami-Dade Police Department.
In the first incident in Miami Beach, a vehicle was egged and a second was smeared with cream cheese and the words “Hamas” and “Jew” written on a rear and side window. The owner, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Rachel, said she was headed to synagogue at 6:30am Saturday when she walked into a crowd of people surrounding her family’s vehicles.
“We live in America; we don’t expect this to happen here,” said the 22-year-old. The family’s faith is no secret. The vehicles bore stickers indicating they are Jewish. “It’s sad, but we have to be careful wherever we are.”
Although the incident is being investigated as a hate crime, the defacing of the synagogue has been considered “criminal mischief,” according to police reports. The Florida Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is working with police to classify the second incident as a hate crime also.
“Hate starts with an idea; it starts with words, images,” said Hava Holzhauer, the ADL’s Florida regional director. “What we get concerned about is when these images and these words become inflammatory.”
Members of the Jewish community applaud the police for their efforts, but don’t expect them to nab any suspects.
“The people who do these kinds of things are cowards,” Miriam Bensinger said. “They hit and run and come out in the dark of night. I don’t think it’s a preventable thing.”
But leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities are trying by working together behind the scenes, said Syed Faisal, a founding board member of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations.
“We stand together as one when it comes to protecting the places of worship,” Faisal said. “We’re trying to take a more calm stand, a more peaceful stand, because at the end of the day, the violence is not going to help anyone.”
Local Jewish activities continued this week, as synagogues across North Miami Beach welcomed congregants for the all-male Tefilot service on Wednesday evening.
At Young Israel of Greater Miami, a popular Orthodox congregation near Torah V’Emunah, Eli Maman arrived early. He wasn’t concerned about vandalism.
“There are cameras everywhere, inside and out, so we won’t have that problem,” said Maman, an elderly man who shuffled about the building confidently.
Besides the act down the block was pretty foolish, Maman said. “They have a lot of delusional people,” he said.
Blocks away, Rabbi Bensinger led a full service at Torah V’Emunah, where cars filled every parking space and surrounding greenery.
The 30-year-old congregation started in a small home before raising funds to build the modest temple three years ago. They’re good neighbors and citizens, members said. So why would anyone do this?
“We all know each other,” Miriam Bensinger said. “It’s a family, and it’s a bad feeling when your family is violated.”