OLYMPIA — Congregants of Temple Beth Hatfiloh were among some 300 community members attending an interfaith vigil in June at a local Vietnamese Buddhist temple, the scene of two vandalism incidents. The temple’s rabbi, Marna Sapsowitz, spoke at the gathering, and about 10 members of the temple choir sang, eliciting an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Religious statuary on the grounds of Lien Hoa Temple was toppled and broken on consecutive Sunday nights, May 27–28 and June 3–4. No graffiti or threatening messages were reported. Juvenile boys had been seen near the temple on nights prior to the incidents.
Asked if local law enforcement was viewing the acts as hate incidents, Captain Daniel D. Kimball, in charge of detectives at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, replied, “A lot of it depends upon what was in the mind of the perpetrator at the time they committed the act….
“Some things speak for themselves. For example, the burning of a cross in an African-American’s yard is prima facie evidence of a hate crime: There’s not a lot of other reasons to do that. To knock over a religious monument could be a hate crime, but it could also be some immature act of a kind no different than breaking a window to a car. In other words, you kind of have to get into [the perpetrator’s] head.”
Nevertheless, word of a vigil in support of the Buddhist congregation went out among area religious and other organizations and via The Olympian newspaper. An estimated 300 congregants, neighbors and other well-wishers crowded into the temple on the evening of Sunday, June 10. About 15 speakers, including politicians and clergy, addressed the assembly.
Gov. Gary Locke was unable to attend but sent a message of support, and state legislator Sandra Romero spoke of her outrage, which had turned to encouragement in view of the large show of solidarity.
“It makes no difference if [the vandals] were too young to know any different: In my mind it could be a hatemonger who burns crosses; the damage to the families who worship here, and to our communities, remains the same,” Romero said.
Olympia Mayor Stan Biles pointed out that every hate movement begins with one small step. “In this room tonight, I see generations of people who could have experienced that: Those small steps may have been in Krakow, or in Dusseldorf, or Berlin, or Alabama, or East Los Angeles, or Jerusalem or Saigon,” he said. “And tonight, by the number of people here…we are communicating a message…that what has happened here is unacceptable, that what has happened here is not to be tolerated, and not to be condoned…”
Rabbi Sapsowitz of Temple Beth Hatfiloh told the audience of the 1993 incident in Billings, Mont., in which a brick was thrown through the bedroom window where a 6-year-old Jewish boy had placed a Hanukkah menorah.
“Most of the people who lived in Billings, Montana, didn’t know much about Hanukkah,” Sapsowitz explained. “Most of the people of Billings, Montana, didn’t know much about Judaism. But they did know that this act of hatred directed against their neighbors wasn’t right…” Sapsowitz recounted how the Billings Gazette printed a full-page illustration of a menorah, which upwards of 10,000 homes, schools, churches and businesses publicly displayed in what became known as the “Not in Our Town” movement. As a result, the number of hate incidents reported in Billings plummeted.
Sapsowitz went on to say that “the desecration of what is sacred to our neighbors hurts us all, and it is not acceptable.” To the members of Lien Hoa Temple she said, “We stand with you, and offer our support ...”
The Temple Beth Hatfiloh choir then sang, receiving loud applause.
Evan Ferber, a member of the choir, said that he and his fellow performers “wanted to show solidarity with other minority groups. I think it’s really important to be an ally for others, and others can be an ally for the Jewish community.”