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, Oct. 18, 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Sinai)

Bay Area Jews ask: Should our buildings be visibly Jewish?

Since 2019, Bay Area Jewish institutions have received close to $2 million in federal security grants to protect their buildings against attacks, but a new question has emerged for some local Jewish leaders amid concerns over antisemitism: Should our buildings be publicly identified as Jewish?

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris
Rabbi Yehuda Ferris

For Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, of Berkeley’s Chabad of the East Bay, the question was central to his new building on University Avenue, which reopened to congregants in May.

“It’s always a debate. On the one hand, you don’t want to be a homing device for antisemitism,” said Ferris. “On the other hand, we are a lighthouse and we need to be proud and open. We are here to be a light unto the nations.”

Ferris’ Chabad center, near the Trader Joe’s, is visibly Jewish from the street. There’s a banner advertising the shul on the storefront and an image of a dancing Hasidic Jew. But Ferris did institute one form of concealment at his Chabad house — a “camouflaged” mezuzah that is disguised as a security keypad to prevent vandalism.

“They wouldn’t see a mezuzah. It looks like a little white box with a red light on it,” he said. His Chabad house — a former retail shop selling healing crystals – also received a $133,000 federal security grant in September, of which $70,000 will go toward installing bulletproof glass.

Concerns over attacks on Jewish organizations have increased since the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018 and the Chabad of Poway attack in 2019. In the Bay Area, the Chabad of Noe Valley preschool and the Jewish-owned Manny’s Cafe were hit with anti-Zionist graffiti surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict in the spring, and a man spray-painted a swastika on Oakland’s Temple Sinai a year ago.

The more we’re connected with our neighbors, the more secure we are.

Rafael Brinner, who heads community security for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and has helped organizations apply for security grants, said the question of easily seen Jewish signage does come up during his security consultations.

Rafael Brinner
Rafael Brinner

“If you’re in a central area where there are a lot of protests, and that sign could be a lightning rod, that’s one consideration. But in general, I don’t think the community should be trying to hide,” said Brinner. “If anything, we should be integrating into our communities that much more. The more we’re connected with our neighbors, the more secure we are.”

Brinner does advise synagogues against posting their hours of worship on the building. “If someone can find you on Google Maps, then it makes no difference whether your sign is in front of your building or not. But don’t add lots of other information on your sign,” he said.

Rabbi Shimon Margolin, who heads the Russian-speaking Jewish Community of SF Bay Area, a nonprofit umbrella organization, said community members are working hard to increase the security of their Richmond District building to assuage concerns over a Jewish structure becoming a target for attacks.

Rabbi Shimon Margolin
Rabbi Shimon Margolin

“Me and our board and our leadership, we are determined to identify it as Jewish,” said Margolin. “It’s very important to to be proud Jews, to stand tall, because that’s the reason we came to this country.”

Along with helping to carry out the Jewish principle of “being a light unto the nations,” Ferris said Jewish signage also serves a practical purpose. “Out of sight, out of mind, out of business,” he said. “You need a little curb appeal.”

Organizations seeking assistance with applying to next round of federal security grants can contact [email protected].

Eliyahu Kamisher

Eliyahu Kamisher is a freelancer and J. contributor who has written for SFGATE, Los Angeles Magazine and The Appeal. He previously covered police and criminal justice for The Jerusalem Post.