Freddie Lee Smith aka Zachary RunningWolf occupying an oak tree in Berkeley in 2006. (Photo/Twitter)
Freddie Lee Smith aka Zachary RunningWolf occupying an oak tree in Berkeley in 2006. (Photo/Twitter)

Berkeley man known to police charged with Oakland synagogue vandalism

A suspect was charged Thursday in connection with an alleged hate crime at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, where a black swastika was found scrawled in paint on the historic wooden sanctuary doors early Monday morning.

Freddie Lee Smith, also known as Zachary RunningWolf, a 57-year-old Berkeley man, was charged with six felonies, including vandalism and violation of civil rights with a hate crime enhancement, according to Alameda County assistant district attorney Teresa Drenick. Smith describes himself as an “Indigenous Elder” and is well known in Berkeley as a frequent mayoral candidate.

“This office takes very seriously hate crimes and encourages anyone who is the victim of or witness to hate crimes to report immediately,” Drenick told J. “We will investigate and prosecute criminal activity driven by antisemitism, xenophobia, racism or discrimination.”

Footage from the synagogue’s security cameras, turned over to Oakland police, was instrumental in identifying the alleged perpetrator.

According to the arrest report, Smith’s backpack and shirt matched images of the suspect, and police found several cans of spray-paint in his backpack. He was charged with the most recent incident as well as with two others that took place earlier this month, including painting the words “Bye bye evil evil evil Jews.”

A swastika was found painted on Temple Sinai’s carved wooden door in Oakland, Oct. 18, 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Sinai)
A swastika was found painted on Temple Sinai’s carved wooden door in Oakland on Oct. 19, 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Sinai)

Last year Smith, who has unsuccessfully run for mayor of Berkeley on multiple occasions, was issued a restraining order for death threats against Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in 2019. He was also charged with felony vandalism in 2016. He’s known in Berkeley for his participation in a long-running tree sit more than 10 years ago at UC Berkeley, in which he and others attempted to block several oaks from being cut on the campus.

Senior Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin said her synagogue is accustomed to dealing with regular tagging. “We’re urban,” she said, “so we’ve always had some graffiti.”

But the defacements of the past few weeks appeared to be more targeted. The carved Stars of David in the sanctuary doors, which date back to 1914, were vandalized and daubed with paint on Oct. 3 and 5, and Mates-Muchin said “a strange picture of a pig” was found on the grounds. This week’s incident was the first time the graffiti was explicitly antisemitic, she said.

“A swastika was right over a Jewish star,” she said.

Like many synagogues, Temple Sinai upgraded its security system after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 that killed 11. Mates-Muchin said a congregant had financed upgraded lighting, more robust fencing and additional cameras.

Antisemitic incidents are increasing in the U.S., according to a report released in May by the Anti-Defamation League. The findings included a 12 percent increase in the total number of antisemitic incidents in 2019 compared with the previous year, the highest since 1979. California had the third highest number, at 330 incidents.

Temple Sinai has been targeted before. In 2017, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, synagogue leaders arrived before services to find an obscene, antisemitic slur on the building. The situation was even more intense then, with the imminent arrival of 1,200 worshippers. This time fewer people saw the graffiti, Mates-Muchin said, but it still affected congregants, who were alerted to the news by email.

People write positive words on paper covering anti-Semitic graffiti at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
People write positive words on paper covering antisemitic graffiti at Temple Sinai in Oakland on Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

An April study by the ADL found that more than half of American Jews have witnessed or experienced antisemitism over the past five years, and nearly two-thirds said they feel less safe than they did a decade ago.

“I think a lot of people are feeling vulnerable,” Mates-Muchin said. “I think this is one of a number of things that make people worry.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.