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Members of Irvine synagogue united 'in strength' after building is defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti

Members of Irvine synagogue united 'in strength' after building is defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti
Basil Luck, co-founder of Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, said the profane, anti-Semitic message spray-painted on the side of their building "hurts me in the heart" but the huge outpouring of support nurtures hope. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The gates are locked, but beyond the secured buildings members of the Beth Jacob Congregation say they are united “in strength” the day after a hooded intruder defaced their place of worship.

“Yes, it hurts me in the heart. I feel like this, this is my child,” congregation co-founder Basil Luck said Thursday, gesturing to the property nestled near the Rancho San Joaquin Golf Course in Irvine.

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“But more than the reality of seeing the graffiti is seeing the letters of support that have given us deep hope. So many people care, and we join with them knowing that there is more good than bad in the world.”

The massive outpouring of support gave the congregation’s 225 families a huge boost, Luck said, reflecting on a “lovely” missive from Irvine’s mayor and flowers and messages from people across the county and beyond.

On Wednesday, students from Chapman University and UC Irvine came to pay their respects, and on Thursday, state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra condemned “the unconscionable vandalism” directed at worshipers, adding: “Hate crimes must never find safe harbor anywhere in America. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

Allen Berezovsky, president of Beth Jacob’s board, did not express surprise over the obscenity-laced graffiti spray-painted in one of America’s safest cities — especially just days after a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Jewish communities across the country have been on high alert, and “making sure their members are extra careful” following the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history.

“We’ve talked about how we must be vigilant because unfortunately, these are the times we live in. Yet we try to keep our spirits very strong,” Berezovsky said, grateful for global support from “people of all creeds, races and religions” and from those who “ask what they can do to help.”

The number of anti-Semitic incidents and crimes has been rising rapidly after years of decline.

The Anti-Defamation League has tracked anti-Semitic incidents since 1979, using reports from media, police and victims. The worst year was 1994, with 2,066 incidents. The total dropped to 751 by 2013. It has been rising ever since, with the biggest all-time annual jump recorded last year, when the tally climbed 57% to 1,986.

In 2017, the Santa Ana-based OC Human Relations found that hate crimes in the county had increased nearly 30% over the previous two years, with Jews making up 9% of the victims.

And “it hasn’t slowed down” in 2018, said Don Han, operations manager for the Human Relations Council. He cited the slaying of Blaze Bernstein, allegedly by a classmate who espoused anti-LGBTQ and anti-Semitic sentiments.

Luck said that Beth Jacob members are attending services every day “as we felt it was completely unnecessary to change our schedule.” A GoFundMe page has also been started to raise money to hire a full-time security guard for the campus.

Luck, 79, who raised three children in the congregation, said being at the house of worship “has allowed me to witness countless births, deaths and celebrations of life” since he co-founded it 34 years ago. He said Beth Jacob has brought him “immeasurable joy. I’ve seen kids come here as babies, then grow up with us and they’re now doctors and everything else.”

In the beginning, Irvine’s first Orthodox Jewish congregation held services for about 20 members at members’ homes. Later on, officials at the Irvine Co., the city’s major developer, would let Beth Jacob leaders know if there was a vacant storefront where they could host their gatherings on Fridays and Saturdays.

Services eventually moved to a room above a bowling alley until land became available and the congregation bought the first of its three buildings along Michelson Drive, where the property now spans 3½ acres.

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Beth Jacob was a target of anti-Semitism in April, when prosecutors charged Nicholas Rose with attempted hate-crime threats for possessing anti-Semitic literature, including “kill lists” of Jewish people and a step-by-step guide to “killing my first Jew.”

“Like I said, these are the times we live in, yet I have faith” in the worshipers’ ability “to help their children better understand the underlying causes of hate crimes,” Berezovsky said. He wrote a letter to the congregation, adding: “When people want to help, it shows the world that love always outshines hate.”

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