Jewish Community Members Respond to Hate Crimes Against Jewish Establishments in Rogers Park

Courtesy of Rabbi Levi Notik, F.R.E.E. SynagogueOn Jan. 30, Rabbi Levi Notik of the Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.) Synagogue noticed that a swastika had been spray-painted on the side of the temple building after hearing commotion outside.

Since 2022 began, multiple Jewish establishments in West Rogers Park have reported acts of discriminatory vandalism. Local Jewish community members, including students involved in Jewish organizations at Loyola, have reacted with concern. 

A spray-painted graffiti image of a swastika appeared on the side of the Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.) Synagogue building on Jan. 30, located at 2935 W. Devon Ave., according to The Chicago Police Department (CPD). 

The same person who defaced the F.R.E.E. Synagogue was later accused of spray-painting similar hateful symbols on a cargo container only a block away, near a Jewish high school located at 3021 W. Devon Ave.

Courtesy of Rabbi Levi Notik, F.R.E.E. Synagogue The Chicago Police Department arrested the suspect, who has been charged with several felonies.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) arrested the suspect, Shahid Hussain, 39, of Niles, Illinois. According to the police report filed, Hussain has been charged with several felonies, including charges for hate crimes as well as for property damages. 

Debrah Silverstein, the alderwoman for the 50th Ward on the far north side of Chicago, said in an email to The Phoenix local authorities responded quickly to the incidents in West Rogers Park and made an arrest shortly after a 911 call was made. 

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the 24th District Commander met with local Rabbis and community leaders for a public safety briefing, which was broadcast over Zoom,” Silverstein wrote. “Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx were also in the neighborhood to announce hate crime charges against the offender.”

Research conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows Jews are the most targeted religious community within the United States. Since the federal agency began collecting information on hate crimes in 1990, they have identified that over half of religious-based crimes within the U.S. are targeted at the Jewish community.  

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is an international organization dedicated to combating  antisemitism. Its most recent report on incidents of antisemtism within the U.S. found there were a total of 2,024 cases of harassment, vandalism, or assault against Jews in 2020. Over the past five years, the ADL has found there has been a 60% increase in in antisemitic crimes in the United States. 

Silverstein said events like these haven’t been common in the 50th Ward’s recent history. 

“Aside from these hateful incidents, we have not seen an increase in vandalism in our neighborhood,” Silverstein said in an email.  “Unfortunately, hate crimes and antisemitic incidents are on the rise on a national level, but these are the first issues we have had in the 50th Ward in recent years.”

However, Silverstein said in light of these occurrences, local synagogues should take precautions. 

“We are encouraging local synagogues and places of worship to take security seriously,” Silverstein said. “The 24th District Police have a Place of Worship Safety Advisory Team (POWSAT) that will inspect facilities and provide personalized safety recommendations. Many local synagogues have already taken advantage of this valuable resource.”

Rabbi Levi Notik has been a part of  F.R.E.E. Synagogue in West Rogers Park since 2004. Notik explained he didn’t realize what had happened until he and some of his congregation went outside of the temple. 

“We were packing food for public schools and as soon as we finished packaging, we came outside and we noticed a swastika on the wall of the building,” Notik said. 

Notik said it was difficult for himself and others in his congregation to see a symbol that has a history rooted in hatred. 

“The symbol of the swastika is very diffcult for anybody, especially for children of Holocaust survivors or people that have been impacted by antisemitism in a real way,” Notik said. 

Due to F.R.E.E. Synagogue’s large population of Eastern European immigrants, Notik explained many of the whorshippers who attend the services at the synagogue might have experienced previous antisemitic actions while living in the Soviet Union.  

Notik confirmed the synagogue aims to bolster its food distribution program in reaction to the acts of vandalism. He said the meals help support lower-income households in the area, including seniors. 

Courtesy of Rabbi Levi Notik, F.R.E.E. Synagogue A spray-painted graffiti image of a swastika appeared on the side of the Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.) Synagogue building on Jan. 30.

“When you see something like that, it is a reminder that you have a responsibility to champion for love and for goodness and kindness,” Notik said. “Judaism teaches that the way to overcome adversity is through unity.” 

The Bubby Fira Food Bank program provides thousands of prepared meals to the surrounding community each month, according to Notik. While many people have access to purchasing canned goods, Notik believes access to pre-cooked meals is very much needed in the community. 

“We are constantly getting requests for additional families that need food,” Notik said. “So that’s what we are doing, doing more of that in response.” 

Notik still believes Rogers Park is a safe community for Jewish worship, despite the vandalism. 

“Devon Avenue is a very diverse place,” Notik said. “All different types of nationalities are running businesses up and down Devon. The people here are friendly, nice, and respectful.” 

Loyola senior Molly Fidlow also acknowledged how she feels comforted by having a supportive community of Jewish people around her. When Fidlow heard of the events that took place in West Rogers Park, she explained that while it was disheartening, she wasn’t necessarily surprised. 

“There is a large Jewish community in Chicago, but antisemitism is a large issue that comes with a large Jewish population living in one place,” Fidlow said. “Unfortunately, this brings a lot of negative attention and a lot of misunderstanding that leads to violence. It’s hard to see, it’s to experience, especially as a young person. You feel helpless and not able to do anything in your own neighborhood.”

Hillel at Loyola is the main Jewish student organization on-campus. Fidlow, a political science major, has been on the board of the organization since she was a first year. 

Since being a student at Loyola, Fidlow said there have been moments where she and others within the organization have felt discriminated against. 

“Unfortunately, I know a lot of fellow members, including myself, have had second thoughts about wearing stars of David around campus and different Jewish symbols because it comes with a lot of hatred,” Fidlow said. 

When asked about what actions can be taken to reduce the amount of hate-related incidents, Fidlow said there need to be more opportunities for educating people about antisemitism. 

“When people work to educate themselves and dispel their misunderstandings about different religions and cultures, it takes strides in creating better relationships between different groups of people,” Fidlow said. 

One of the missions of Hillel, according to Fidlow, is to build relationships with other faith groups and student organizations on-campus. Fidlow said Hillel is open to anyone who has an interest in Judaism, regardless of whether or not they practice a religion. 

Rabbi Levi Notik encourages any Loyola students who want to volunteer at the Bubby Fira Food Bank to visit its website for more information.

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