New York Times
By James Barron
March 26, 2017
“We’ve done a pretty good job of covering them up,” the Rev. Schuyler Vogel said.
“Them” was two swastikas and the words “race” and “office” that were carved into the front doors of Mr. Vogel’s church, Fourth Universalist, on Central Park West at 76th Street, last month. The two words were obscure but ominous: the Nazis had a Racial Office whose responsibilities included approving SS officers’ marriage plans — after investigating the brides-to-be.
With dye, Jeff Collie, the church’s building engineer, reduced the swastikas and the words to little more than scratch marks. But the hurt remains sharp, and in this pocket of the Upper West Side, the surprise is still fresh: Have the brutes of bigotry been roused to the point that it can happen here? Is the meanness that close by? Mr. Collie said the last vandalism at the church — graffiti — occurred 12 years ago.
Now, Fourth Universalist finds itself on a list of disturbing statistics. There was a startling increase in hate crimes in New York City from Jan. 1 to March 19 — 122, up from 59 in the same time last year, according to figures from the New York Police Department. That works out to a 107 percent increase. Of those 122, by far the most — 72 — were classified as “Semitic,” up 177 percent from 26 in the same period last year. The breakdown does not show how many incidents involved synagogues or, as in this case, a church.
The motivation for the attack, if the attackers were as knowledgeable as they seem, is puzzling. Mr. Vogel also talked about the incident as having “long roots that precede the election” — including Donald J. Trump’s affinity for “the language and rhetoric of division,” first as a candidate, then as the president-elect and ultimately as the president.
There was speculation that Fourth Universalist was a target because the congregation had voted to be a sanctuary for unauthorized immigrants.
“That would be my suspicion,” Mr. Vogel said. “We’ve had the Black Lives Matter sign up there for a year or two, so that’s not a new thing.”
So far, Fourth Universalist has not taken anyone in — “the call hasn’t come,” Mr. Vogel said, and the church is still figuring out the details. “We could only be a short-term sanctuary, a day or two,” he said. “We simply don’t have a habitable space for someone to live comfortably for extended months or even years.” One problem: The shower needs to be fixed.
He said he was heartened by the passage of a City Council bill that would provide $25 million in grants to increase safety at community centers, cultural institutions and nonprofit groups. But the obvious step — cameras — may not be the answer for Fourth Universalist.
Photos of the swastikas carved into a door at Fourth Universalist last month. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
“There are some privacy questions for us,” he explained, noting that the church is host to Alcoholics Anonymous groups. “We don’t know if we want to make this a place where everyone who comes in is recorded.”
The church also rents space to a synagogue on the Jewish High Holy days.
Even before the swastikas were carved into the door, Fourth Universalist had formed a “rapid response team” to mobilize members to attend demonstrations protesting policies like the Trump administration’s crackdown on unauthorized immigrants. Fourth Universalist is planning a discussion of civil disobedience at a service next month. Mr. Vogel said that is just taking a page from the right’s playbook. “People who have values different from ours have been very intentional about getting those values out there and attaching those values to power,” he said. “As a congregation, we have to be smarter and more strategic.”
Mr. Vogel, 32, is new to the neighborhood. He was installed as the senior minister last August after moving to New York from a church in Waukesha, Wis. “Much closer to Trump’s America than this congregation,” he said.
Since the attack, he has met people like the local state assemblywoman, Linda B. Rosenthal, who are not new to the neighborhood. “I’ve lived my entire life on the Upper West Side,” she said last week, “but the way I got here was my grandparents had to escape Nazi Germany.
Her maternal grandfather was a rabbi who fled after Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish attacks in 1938. Some members of the congregation had fled by then. She said he had remained to tend to those who had stayed. They “could not fathom what would hit them, still wanting to trust the government, or trust that they would be safe,” Ms. Rosenthal, a Democrat, said.
German Jews “helped form the reputation of the Upper West Side as a hotbed of discussion and discourse and all of that,” she said, “but a safe place. They felt protected, even though there was crime — it wasn’t the prosperous place it is now — but people felt safe, safe from the kind of assaults they felt in Nazi Germany. They felt safe. I felt safe.”
So, she said, seeing swastikas carved on a church — “especially a church” — was disturbing. “It feels like an etching into my own flesh,” she said. “The JCCs are vulnerable, the synagogues are vulnerable, but when this church was threatened, it felt like it was encroaching even more. This was outside the regular set of expected victims.”
She spoke at an interfaith solidarity vigil at Fourth Universalist two weeks ago, along with Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem; Rabbi Marc Margolius of the West End Synagogue; Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president; United States Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat; and Bill Moyers, who lives nearby.
“We put out 150 chairs and 150 bulletins,” Mr. Vogel said, but between 400 and 500 people showed up. “We ran out of places to put chairs. This gives us a lot of hope that if there were a crisis situation, those people would answer our call — ‘We have people here. Can you bring a meal by?’ Or, ‘Do you have connections in the legal system that can help in an emergency?’”
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