The Chabad sukkah on the East River Esplanade in Carl Schurz Park after it was defaced by vandals on Oct. 1, the last day of the celebratory Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Photo: Chabad of the Upper East Side
A public sukkah set up just yards away from Gracie Mansion to mark the festive Jewish holiday of Sukkot was spray painted in black with the phrase “FREE GAZA” repeated three times in a desecration the NYPD branded a “possible hate crime.”
The vandals struck after midnight on Sunday on the promenade of Carl Schurz Park, where for the past three years, Chabad of the Upper East Side has erected the communal hut to shelter Jews who celebrate with feasting, dancing and praying.
As the police Hate Crime Task Force began reviewing the area's security cameras, Chabad followers quickly painted over the politically charged words, replacing them with messages of peace like “Shalom” and “The Sukkah of Unity.”
Undeterred by the outrage, the community came out in force in front of the Chabad on East 77th Street on Monday night for a “Simchat Torah street festival and solidarity rally,” observing the equally joyous holiday that directly follows the seven days of Sukkot — and dancing with the Torah scrolls.
“The Jewish community will respond as the Jewish people have always responded to hatred, darkness and evil — by strengthening, deepening, and intensifying the light and positivity,” said Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, executive director of the Chabad.
Meanwhile, reaction was swift and condemnatory: “Defacing a sukkah is unacceptable. It is an attack on our city's values,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. “If you any information on this act of vandalism, please contact the NYPD.”
There have been no arrests, and police asked anyone with information to call the Crime Stoppers' tip line at 800-577-TIPS.
In a statement, the Anti-Defamation League said it was “appalled” by the “FREE GAZA” images that were soon circulating online. “Targeting premises used for religious purposes during the Jewish holiday is simply beyond the pale,” the ADL added.
The New York chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations also weighed in: “There is no place for this anti-Semitism in our city,” said Albert Cahn, the legal director of CAIR-NY.
“It is heartbreaking to see a place of religious observance vandalized, to see a symbol of celebration transformed into an instrument of hate,” he added. “All New Yorkers must unite in our denunciation of this vile harassment.”
Manhattan has one of the “lowest rates of sukkahs per-capita” among Jews worldwide, according to Rabbi Krasnianski, who cited limitations of space.
Accordingly, he said, thousands of people rely on Chabad, which organizes multiple sukkahs as a community service in order to expand the number of residents able to participate in the cherished holiday observance.
There are 70,000 Jews living on the Upper East Side, the rabbi said.
Sukkot commemorates the sheltering by God of the Jewish people in the wilderness during the long passage from Egypt to the Promised Land, and meals during the holiday are consumed in branch-and-greenery-covered sukkahs, like the hut overlooking the East River that was defaced.
Simchat Torah, the two-day holiday that started Oct. 1, celebrates the conclusion — and immediate resumption — of the annual Torah-reading cycle, and it is marked by, in Chabad's description, “utterly unbridled joy” and “dancing, singing, capering, snacking, and maybe even some (moderate) drinking.”
As it is written in Torah, specifically Deuteronomy 16:14-16, “And you shall rejoice on your festivals!”