Vandalism mars Hanukkah in Ind. college town

December 9, 2010 4:02:28 AM PST
When Indiana University student Carl Corenblum found a rock and shattered window at the Chabad House Jewish Center near campus, he never thought about the possibility that it could have been a hate crime. But in the days since, authorities have recorded several other incidents of vandalism aimed at the city's Jewish community, including someone taking Hebrew books from two libraries -- one at the university and one off-campus -- and placing them in toilets and urinating on them.

"When you go after the books, it's a much more severe act, much more premeditated. It cuts much deeper, I think, too," said Corenblum, a 22-year-old psychology major from Alabama and one of about 4,000 Jewish students on the campus of 40,000 about 60 miles south of Indianapolis.

Authorities have no suspects in the incidents that began before Thanksgiving and marred the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah. But as the vandalism has increased since that first rock was found Nov. 23, so has the response from a community that prides itself on its diversity but also has dealt with hate crimes in the past.

"Rather than creating any bad feelings about people, it created good bonds," said Islamic Center president Faiz Rahman.

In a recent act of solidarity, about 200 people of various races and faiths braved temperatures in the low 20s as Mayor Mark Kruzan lit the central candle of a 9-foot menorah at Chabad House. The base of the menorah was the rock that had broken the center's window. Students and community volunteers stood watch overnight throughout Hanukkah -- the Jewish Festival of Lights -- to make sure the menorah wasn't vandalized.

The attacks have included rocks being thrown through a kitchen window at a Jewish student center a few blocks from Chabad House, at a Christian church where a Jewish group meets and at a display case at a university building housing a Jewish students program.

Another rock was hurled through the window of an upstairs apartment at Chabad House, narrowly missing a woman who lives there. Someone drew swastikas on a dry-erase board in a student dorm.

The attacks have startled students who were used to a peaceful campus atmosphere, where residents say diversity is celebrated. "I feel safe here, but it does alarm me that there are people who will go this far," said 19-year-old Emily Scott, a freshman from Madison, Ind.

Yet community leaders acknowledge Bloomington has long had a fringe element that can fuel such attacks.

The city is about 18 miles south of the nearly all-white city of Martinsville, which has struggled to distance itself from its image as a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the place where a 21-year-old black woman who was selling encyclopedias door-to-door was killed in 1968. In Bloomington, Beth Shalom synagogue was firebombed in 1983 by members of a neo-Nazi group who were passing through southern Indiana, said Lana Ruegamer Eisenberg, who wrote a history of the congregation. In 2005, the FBI investigated an arson at a Bloomington mosque and the burning of a Quran as a hate crime.

Some of the support for the Jewish community -- including downloadable pictures of menorahs that residents can put in their windows to show solidarity -- has been orchestrated by Bloomington United. The group took root around 1999, when a white supremacist who had placed white power leaflets on cars and doorsteps around in the area went on a two-state shooting spree and killed a Korean graduate student at Indiana University.

The university's provost issued a statement condemning the vandalism, and both Jewish centers have been overwhelmed by hundreds of letters, e-mails, visits and other expressions of support from the community, from Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. A group of Muslims, for example, came to Thanksgiving dinner at the local synagogue.

"There's kind of a global sense of understanding in this community ... that there may be some problems in other places, but it doesn't have to transpire here," said Rahman, from the Islamic Center.

Police investigating the vandalism have contacted the FBI, which is reviewing whether the case should be investigated as a hate crime. Although no arrests have been made, police have released a description of a man seen near one of the rock-throwings -- a white man with grayish blond hair and a gray beard between the ages of 40 to 50.

"We are a community that has suffered in the past ... and we want to stand up now," said Kruzan, the mayor. "People said we will never forget. And it certainly has held true."


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