“We are welcome. We are part of this community,” Montgomery County Council Vice President Andrew Friedson declared to the hundreds of people gathered at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda on Sunday night to light the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.
A day earlier, vandals had spray painted “Jews Not Welcome” on the school marquee. It was the latest in a series of messages of hate delivered in the ethnically diverse county of 1 million residents.
On Dec. 16, swastikas were painted on a bench at a bus stop near the Westfield Montgomery Mall. One month earlier, the message “No Mercy for Jews” was painted alongside figures hanging on gallows along the Capital Crescent Trail.
Bethesda resident Leigh Marcus, a member of Temple Sinai, helped organize Sunday’s menorah lighting by asking people she knew to show up.
“We needed a place to emote,” she said. “We are a community of Jews. We are a community of Whitman, and we are a community of Bethesda, and we are going to repair the world together.”
Marcus said that when she first learned about the graffiti at the high school, “I cried, like many of us. I’m gutted. Antisemitism is not new, but here it is around the corner from my house.”
Friedson, who is Jewish, along with other Montgomery County officials and area clergy, joined what had been planned as a multi-stop Chanukah procession sponsored by Chabad of Bethesda and the Glen Echo Fire Company.
This year, the joy of the Festival of Lights was to be dimmed by a stop at the spot on Capital Crescent Trail where the grafitti had been painted. On Sunday, Whitman High School was added to the itinerary.
Whitman Principal Robert Dodd recalled Saturday, beginning when members of the high school girls basketball team first saw the antisemitic graffiti and notified the school.
Officials immediately papered over the message and called law enforcement.Dodd said he was “sickened and disgusted” to see that the hate message “was written on such a place of pride, our school marquee.” He then stressed, “All students and community members are welcome at Whitman.”
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he felt anger, fury, sadness and fear when he learned of yet another antisemitic incident in Montgomery County.
He attended the menorah lighting event to “let everyone know we will not be cowed.” The best way to deal with the hate, Halber said, is to respond “with strength, with pride, with dignity and with a straight back.”
Added County Executive Marc Elrich, “The strongest antidote is to speak out.”
Alan Ronkin, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, stressed, “The answer to the antisemite is to be a proud Jew. Period.”
County Police Chief Marcus Jones urged the public to let the police know if they encounter a hate crime. He vowed to investigate every incident “to the fullest. The Montgomery County police are here to protect you,” he said.
Senior Rabbi Greg Harris of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, in Bethesda, told the students gathered, “Tomorrow is going to be no different at Whitman High School. It is your building, and you do belong here. We love you. We are with you.”
He added, “We have to speak loudly and clearly in a unified voice and push hate to the darkest corner.”
Friedson connected Chanukah, the festival of light and rededication, to the vandalism. “Light drowns out darkness. We are honoring the Chanukah story,” he said.
“The Maccabees fought alone, but tonight we are not standing alone,” Friedson said, noting that the county council, school district and police department are supporting the Jewish community.
Following the many somber speeches, Rabbi Sender Geisinsky, director of Chabad of Bethesda, declared, “Let’s get a little Chanukah spirit going. Ladies and gentlemen, you are the light.”
He then turned on music and people began to sing and dance as his synagogue members distributed latkes and sufganiyot.