Anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism rocked San Antonio’s Jewish community in mid-August. Soon afterward, the community received an outpouring of support from people of all faiths and from local officials who vowed to nab those responsible for the hate crimes.
Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of Congregation Rodfei Sholom, one of two targeted synagogues, said Tuesday that the citywide reaction proved hate could not overcome a spirit of unity at play in San Antonio. Scheinberg was one of the speakers at “A Community Conversation: Preventing Hate Crimes” at the Pearl Stable.
“We knew this was an aberration. This was not San Antonio,” Scheinberg said. He cited a passage in the Book of Judges of the Hebrew Bible, saying that “from bitter comes sweet,” meaning after hate comes love.
An emphasis on love, tolerance and education was the consensus from the Rabbi and other who appeared at the event organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The chamber partnered with the Jewish Federation of San Antonio and Catholic Charities.
Winslow Consulting Chief Inspiration Officer Winslow Swart, who moderated the panel, read a letter from Mayor Ivy Taylor, who was on an out-of-state business trip. Taylor stated in her letter that San Antonio’s multiculturalism is a strong, outstanding asset that would not be diminished by isolated hate crimes.
“This attempt to create a division where none exists … to kindle the flames of hatred was bound to fail,” Taylor stated, according to Swart.
The incidents took place in District 8, represented by Councilmember Ron Nirenberg, who said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the hate crimes in the Rodfei Shalom and Agudas Achim congregations, and in the Oak Meadow neighborhood. He helped raise funds for the cash reward CrimeStoppers offered to find the suspects.
Nirenberg said “the United States is convulsing with hate crimes,” but San Antonio’s response to last month’s anti-Semitic incidents has been “encouraging.”
Ronit Sherwin, CEO of the Jewish Federation, said the City’s Jewish community was “overwhelmed by the support” from the entire city.
“Having these conversations, getting to know each other, can help to deter further acts of hate,” she said.
J. Antonio Fernandez, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, said people should act with love, mutual understanding, and respect instead of with hate. Fernandez said people of all races, faiths and beliefs should be a part of an ongoing dialogue about critical local issues.
San Antonio Assistant Police Chief Jose Bañales said crime prevention programs, such as COP (Citizens On Patrol), rely on mutual trust between the police and community.
“Community outreach helps, but before that, we need the community to be engaged,” Bañales said.
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood offered brief comments before making an early departure. Hispanic Chamber President/CEO Ramiro Cavazos said LaHood’s office has remained busy investigating two Bexar County sheriff’s deputies who shot and killed Gilbert Flores, 41, during a domestic dispute call Friday near Leon Springs.
Two videos of the shooting, recorded by bystanders, show Flores with his hands up when he was shot and killed. Deputies Greg Vasquez and Robert Sanchez have been placed on paid administrative pending the outcome of an investigation.
LaHood did not address Friday’s shooting, but he did speak generally about race or religion-related violent acts that have been reported nationwide in recent years.
“Hate crime prevention starts at home. Children will follow your example long before they follow your advice,” he said.
LaHood said he often explains to his children, and tells other youngsters in public gatherings, that their thumbprint is unique. He said some individuals in the world fear uniqueness in others.
“Embrace your uniqueness. Prevention of hate starts in your heart and in your home,” he said. “Every violent crime is a hate crime. It’s hate against humanity.”
Michael Hoyle, chief of the criminal trial division in the District Attorney’s office, joined the panel. He and his family live in the Deerfield neighborhood, near Oak Meadow. Hoyle said he takes his faith seriously and was offended by the hate crimes committed at the two synagogues and in Oak Meadow.
“The places of faith are where we go to find peace. For people to defile these places of peace, I find that very disturbing,” Hoyle said.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, also was on the panel. Silverman said he spent summers as a youth visiting his grandparents in San Antonio and his visit felt like a homecoming.
Silverman said hate knows no bounds. He cited the April 2014 incident in which a white supremacist shot and killed three people at two Jewish centers in Kansas City. He also cited a white man who gunned down nine African-American people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church this past June. Silverman visited both communities to offer moral support.
“Hate, unfortunately, does exist everyday. We see it in the media and in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Let’s look through the lens of unity. It doesn’t mean unanimity, we don’t have to agree on everything. But we need to be unified as a community.”
Sherwin said that the education of today’s youth about tolerance is a top priority for all faiths and races. The Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio, she said, is not only a museum, but also an education and community center.
Fernandez told a story about a native Syrian and a Catholic Charities board member who survived persecution and violence in his homeland to come with his family to the United States. Fernandez also spoke about his encounters with refugees from other countries who simply want a better life.
“When someone comes to us for help, we don’t ask you if you are Catholic. We ask ‘Are you hungry? Do you have a room for the night?'” Fernandez said. “It’s Catholics and non-Catholics helping people with basic love. I think we’re all supposed to be doing that. We don’t care if you’re Catholic, we care that you’re a human being.”
Scheinberg said prejudice is a result of “a fear of other, followed by hatred of other.” His counterpart at Agudas Achim, Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, suggested that the perpetrator, if caught, should be required to visit the local Holocaust Museum and write about his experience.
Nirenberg agreed, saying “hatred springs from a lack of education.” He added that, from a policy-making standpoint, he would help to highlight local programs that stress diversity, understanding and tolerance citywide.
Nirenberg cited the Sikh community that was mistaken for Muslim by a man who gunned down six people at a Sikh temple in August 2012.
State Sen. José Menéndez, a prominent civil rights advocate, was on hand for the forum.He recently helped organize a similar event on community policing.
“I want to reach out to our mayor and help her to create a citywide dialogue, but instead of coming from a stage, it happens at tables,” Menéndez said. “People from all faiths and races, from around the city, come to a city-owned facility and break bread. Maybe we should bring food reflective of our cultures and let’s get to know each other better.”
*Featured/top image:Winslow Swart (left) talks with state Sen. José Menéndez and Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2, right) before the panel discussion. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.