For Jews, the ten days that start with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are the most solemn of the year. Called the Ten Days of Repentance, it is a time for Jews to examine their lives, repent for the sins they have committed over the past year and to seek forgiveness from those they wronged.
For residents of Pikesville—and all of Baltimore’s Jewish community—the Ten Days of Repentance this year were even more fraught than usual. Around 3 a.m. last Sunday, three days after Rosh Hashanah, vandals spray painted a swastika and the word “Nazis” on the signs of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Park Heights Avenue and Beth T’filoh Congregation on Old Court Road. For two days, community members wondered who committed the heinous acts, and on Tuesday, as the Congregations prepared for Yom Kippur, the ugly answer came to light.
Baltimore County police arrested three Jewish teenagers for the crimes, including one, 19-year-old Matthew Saunders, whose family worships at Baltimore Hebrew. The other vandals were Daniel Diaz, 19, and a 17-year-old whose name was not released. Police have since decided not to classify the incident as a hate crime, stating that they still don’t know the motive for the crime. So, community members are left to ask: Why?
“The incidents need to be probed to see what it heaven’s name would lead people to do what they did,” says Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who suggests that sensitivity training, possibly including a trip to the Holocaust Museum, be part of the vandals’ sentence. “If the three are Jewish, not to know what a swastika means and talking about Nazis, there are no excuses.”
According to Facebook, Saunders and Daniel Diaz were 2007 graduates of Pikesville High School and both had several friends in Israel. Some have suggested the trio are self-hating Jews, who so loathe their traditions that they were moved to act in league with the most vicious anti-Semites. Others believe that the kids committed the acts on a dare, or as a prank, possibly related to some kind of gang initiation. My guess is that they were—in the dubious tradition of teenagers everywhere—trying to shock their elders, rebel against their traditions, and, if possible, impress their peers. They did so by committing an incredibly stupid crime, likely without realizing the hurt they would cause or the serious repercussions to their futures.
For many members of the Jewish community it comes as strange relief that the perpetrators were Jews, however deviant, as opposed to Neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists or some other variety of organized hate group. “My guess is, it was one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night, they may have been drunk, who knows,” says Abramson. “It doesn’t make an excuse, but it certainly makes it less problematic for me vis a vis what it could have been.”
No one really knows what they were thinking except the kids themselves. Abramson has some advice for them: “Especially at this particular time, repentance is a good idea,” he says. “We’ll see how they do it.”
What do you think?