LACONIA — The wall outside the kitchen at Temple B’nai Israel features a memorial of love and blessings: a mobile of bright origami birds, and three framed letters from the Congregational Church of Laconia – United Church of Christ.
The letters arrived after 11 people were killed in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last October, the deadliest attack ever on Jewish people in the United States.
They contain signatures and messages: We are sorry for your tragic loss. Our prayers and love surround you. We are strong in spirit with you. Your kindness that helps so many folks in your love.
For 80 years the synagogue on Court Street has been a worship and gathering place for Jewish families in the Lakes Region who come together for prayer, study, singing and outreach in an area that is largely nonreligious or Christian. The temple’s roots grow wide and deep.
Temple B’Nai Israel members serve meals at local soup kitchens run by the Salvation Army and St. Andre Bessette Catholic parish. Their annual Jewish Food Festival draws roughly 1,000 during three hours on a Sunday in July. Through its “We Care” fundraising concerts to benefit local service organizations – such as the Lakes Region VNA and Hospice and Camp Resilience, which hosts retreats for veterans with physical and mental health challenges – the temple donated $80,000 over the last six years.
“We just may be the family you didn’t know you had,” reads the temple’s website.
“A good number of people who like us on Facebook don’t have Jewish last names. Thank goodness we’ve never seen any abuse of anyone posting,” said Karen Lukeman of Bristol. “We love where we live.”
The congregation’s place and popularity in this section of the state are not in question. But in this climate of heightened extremism — with public and online expressions of hate, and a rise in domestic terrorism against different faiths — U.S. synagogues remain on alert, including in Laconia.
This year, Temple B’Nai Israel adopted safety and emergency protocols and installed security systems with guidance and assistance from the Laconia Police Department — even though the temple and its members haven’t received any direct threats in the wake of shootings elsewhere.
Last month, $150,000 in FEMA grants to step up on-site security at New Hampshire houses of worship were awarded to three churches in Bedford, Littleton and Greenland, and four Jewish temples in Manchester, Nashua and Derry, including one home-based synagogue.
Through training offered by the Jewish Federation of NH, the New Hampshire Council of Churches, and the Anti-Defamation League of New England, Granite State congregations are receiving instruction in emergency preparedness, how to identify threats and keep worshipers safe. That includes learning to deal with bomb threats and active shooter situations.
“Where do you think it’s more predictable?” Lukeman said. “It could happen anywhere.”
“We live here and have support in the community,” said Stu Needleman of Moultonborough, “but we can’t put our heads in the sand.”
Bias and anti-Semitism can take many forms, and for Jewish people, it’s important to recognize and respond to hate speech, including counteracting denials that the Holocaust ever happened.
Temple B’Nai Israel members worry that misinformation and malevolence may spread to the greater community and infect dialogue close to home. Ryan Murdough of New Hampton expressed hate speech and Holocaust denial in letters to The Laconia Daily Sun last year and just before Passover this year.
That sparked outrage, including letters to the editor raising questions about the boundaries of free speech and whether such rhetoric deserves a spotlight in the press. Murdough was a candidate for the state legislature in 2010 who said online he might run again, and the Sun’s editors said they printed the letters to expose the beliefs of an individual seeking political office.
But the letters were still unsettling to many in the Jewish community.
“When you read a letter from an individual that spews hate, does that spur others to jump on the bandwagon?” Lukeman said.
When she hears or reads hate-filled vitriol or insistence that genocide of Jewish people by Nazis and their sympathizers never happened, “I am sad about the closed-mindedness and misguided ideology that is at the root,” said Melanie Zalman McDonald, director of the Jewish Federation of NH, in an email. “I am angry because an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us...It is not necessary for people to disparage what they hate in order to promote what they love.”
Intervention to combat simmering or overt bias and intolerance is on the radar of communities statewide, especially those who recently welcomed new immigrant groups, or have Jewish or Muslim congregations.
The Jewish community “is a target, there is no doubt about that,” Gov. Chris Sununu told an audience of 200 at a Sept. 15 meeting of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire at Temple Israel in Manchester. “Tell people you’re watching and listening” and share concerns with state representatives, he said.
The New Hampshire Attorney General's office recommends people call their local police departments, then call or file an online complaint with the state attorney general if they’re targeted or witness anti-Semitic events. ADL New England in Boston also tracks incidents.
According to data collected from citizen reports, the media, and law enforcement agencies, anti-Semitic acts and language have spiked in New Hampshire the last two years. Today, New Hampshire ranks second among New England states for reported occurrences, with 13 reported to the ADL in 2017, 14 in 2018, and seven so far this year. In May, Chabad centers in Arlington and Needham, Massachusetts, — private homes where family members live, which are open to the community for worship and learning — were set on fire with people inside, an unprecedented assault against Jewish people in a neighboring state.
According to the FBI, Jews remain the most-targeted religious group in the U.S., and 2018 was the third-highest year for anti-Semitic incidents nationwide in 40 years, trailing 2017, the second highest.
“It’s getting increasingly dangerous to be a Jew in this country,” said Robert Trestan, director of ADL New England, at the state’s Jewish Federation meeting in mid-September.
Alt-right, white supremacist groups that champion cultural and racial purity, such as the Daily Stormer Book Club and Patriot Front, are known to be active here and throughout New England, according to the ADL. The propaganda pushed by the groups typically denies that the Holocaust – the mass killing of millions of Jews in Poland, Russia and elsewhere during World War II — ever happened.
Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield says his department, and the state and federal law enforcement agencies it coordinates with on domestic threats and civil rights, have not encountered or received reports of organized activities by those groups in the Lakes Region.
But not every community has been so fortunate.
Earlier this month, a swastika and a Star of David were drawn in chalk at the entrance to Vaughan Mall in Portsmouth. “It’s easy to dismiss these things as juvenile, misdirected, or victimless,” Trestan added. “But the words and symbols of hate are too often precursors to violence.”
Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord said she and congregation members received anti-Semitic threats and messages from Holocaust deniers and white supremacists after the Pittsburgh shooting nearly a year ago. The Kent Street Coalition in Concord, a volunteer advocacy group with trained citizen-peacekeepers, stood watch outside the synagogue during worship the following weekend.
"It gave then a level of comfort, and allowed them to catch their breath," said Louise Spencer, the group's co-founder. "They are the first people who will stand for others, so we wanted to stand with them."
“Virtually every student in our congregation has experienced anti-Semitic remarks and Holocaust denials,” and some have heard Holocaust jokes on their school bus, Nafshi said.
The temple’s application for federal FEMA aid to pay for the costs of boosting security was turned down this summer because it was incomplete, Nafshi said – a cruel irony since Temple Beth Jacob experienced the most significant overt threat to safety of any house of worship statewide. The congregation hopes to secure alternative funding next year. FEMA grants to the seven congregations that received them ran from $10,000 to $20,000.
“There’s a general danger when hatred becomes the norm. If you see it every single day, people become numb to it,” said the ADL’s Trestan. Hatred and bigotry in mainstream media can become catalysts to action, and the internet provides a forum and instant messaging system for hate groups to recruit like-minded souls, who may then disrupt public gatherings or target a local congregation, college, or business, acting individually or as a group. Often, their propaganda and flyers blame Jews, directly or indirectly, for a slew of perceived ills, including threats to national security and Constitutional liberties.
Last year, the Daily Stormer Book Club distributed flyers in a Hooksett sporting goods store stating, “Why are Jews after our guns?” and blaming “Jewish members of Congress for attacking our beloved Second Amendment.”
“The data shows us there is daily engagement (on the internet) by people who adhere to those values and are disseminating hatred if not daily, several times a week,” Trestan said.
Grassroots and government action are needed to thwart hate and effect change that endures, Sununu said at the Jewish Federation gathering in Manchester. Holocaust education is needed in schools, he said.
Drew Cline, chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education, said drafted standards for world history studies in public schools recommend covering the Holocaust, but local school districts ultimately decide whether to include it.
In December 2017, the NH Attorney General’s office added a civil rights unit, making the state the last in the country to create one. Also established was a Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, which has held hearings around the state and will issue a report of its findings and recommendations in December.
Elizabeth Lahey, assistant attorney general and head of the civil rights unit, said in the past two years, complaints of anti-Semitism have come from religious leaders and congregation members, or student victims of harassment and bullying online and at school.
Last year, the ADL received reports of anti-Semitic slurs, threats or intimidation at schools in Sunapee, Keene and Bartlett, and at an elementary school in Waterville. Incidents reported to the state’s civil rights unit have been one-time or ongoing, Lahey said.
Steven Wourgiotis, a graduate student at UNH and a solutions architect for the New York-based Neuroleadership Institute who recently spoke at TEDx Portsmouth, said we're hard-wired to see ourselves as competing tribes. This requires mindfully stepping back, consciously considering others' points of view and reminding ourselves that we need to be respectful to solve our differences and shared problems, he said.
Today the 70 families that make up Temple B’Nai Israel in Laconia remain committed to shalom and tzedakah - shalom meaning peace, tzedakah meaning charitable giving. They also remain dedicated to their communities — and to the magic of homemade food, particularly blintzes, at their annual Jewish Food Festival each summer and their booth at the city’s Multicultural Day Festival in September.
No one at Temple B'Nai Israel underestimates the power of sharing.
Spectators cheered when Temple B’Nai Israel members carried the temple’s banner and marched in Laconia’s 4th of July parade in 2018 and 2019. This year, the temple took second place for “Best House of Worship” in The Laconia Daily Sun’s “Best of the Lakes Region” contest.
Blintzes are crepes stuffed with mildly-sweet cheese, sauteed in butter, and served with strawberries or sour cream. At the food festival, “We’ve heard people say, 'Oh my God, Oh my God! I’ve found food heaven,'”said Lukeman, of Bristol. “For people who have come from Eastern European countries, this is the food of their childhood.”
“When you have food, music and humor,” said Rick Notkin of Gilford, “it makes everyone people again.”
Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com. This story was underwritten by a grant from the New Hampshire Endowment for Health.