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Community Service Trumps Graffiti at OB Jewish Center

It’s gone now. The back walls of the Oyster Bay Jewish Center are newly white. You would never know they had been covered in graffiti. The whitewashing took place on Sunday morning, March 20, as teens wielding long handled paint rollers covered graffiti laden walls first with a surprisingly good primer and 15 minutes later with paint purchased at Bernstein’s Home Center. 

Rabbi Marvin Demant was pleased with the number of young people who came to clean up what is believed was the work of another young person, still to be identified.  

The police report worded the incident as “making graffiti.” The crime happened sometime between Saturday, March 12 after 2 p.m. and Monday, March 14. The rabbi spotted the graffiti from his office in the back of the Oyster Bay Jewish Center. He was seated at his desk when he looked out the window and spotted what looked like a graffiti tag on the wall. They reported the crime to the police. 

Lori Guttenberg OBJC president said, “Our offices face one of the side walls and there was a piece of graffiti, (an ‘ex…’). I saw that first and knew I never saw that before. Some people went out and saw the rest of it. Whoever it was did quite a job.” 

The police came, she said, “And didn’t happen to feel it was a hate crime per se. They weren’t sure, but some pictures could be – but they were not blatantly anti-semetic. But basically they did damage to a religious building in the neighborhood whether it was to a local temple or St. Dominic’s – we don’t know if it was done by children or adults. In theory it’s probably children. It seems to be kids who do graffiti, and there have been kids who have been seen hanging around the temple; and letters have been stolen from the entrance to the synagogue - taken from the name of the temple. It’s a shame that people in the neighborhood have vandalized the temple. 

“The kids might have been hanging out in the woods and decided this was a target and they could do it and not be seen. And, it’s costly to remove and wrong to deface property. It’s not just mischief – like shaving cream or toilet paper. It’s actually done with spray paint  and it’s permanent.” 

Ms. Guttenberg said, “It is sad it happened in this town, a nice small community, and the Rabbi is very involved with the Interreligious and Human Needs Council.” 

Ms. Guttenberg said the police were checking into the tags to see if they were a match to a similar crime. “There certainly are a lot of words,” she said. 

A Lot of Words

There were a lot of words and a lot of pictures, set off in small design areas. Rabbi Demant said his wife Judi who is head of their Hebrew School, was their “forensic scientist.” She looked at the graffiti and saw the story of a not-happy love story. One graffiti said “Whole in my heart,” and it was a red heart shape with a hole in the center with blood coming out. 

Judi Demant said, “If you ‘read it’ you have to feel sorry for the troubled little girl. It is as if she is saying, ‘It is the last straw. I have nothing to live for.’ To me it looks like she has a broken heart. In another one, there is an index finger with a painted nail, holding up the world with the word ‘fail’ on it. She’s crying. She needs help.” 

As you look around the building you come to a face that says “UGLY” and off to the side, “or beautiful.”

Flora Schonfeld, who was there to help, said, “Someone worked for a long time back here, not being seen.” Her daughter Tami Ditkoff, an OBJC member was one of the people putting primer and paint on the wall.

That was one of the things that made this different from a typical graffiti case where the idea is to have the work seen by the public. In this case it was hidden from view. The OBJC is nestled on seven acres with a large wooded section in back.

A Positive Reaction

In spite of the gravity of the crime, the temple turned the event into a positive. Burt Wolff, building and grounds chair had a ladder ready so they could put the primer on the top areas of the wall. He sent out for more brushes when more and more young people kept arriving, “Better to have more people than brushes. That’s a good problem,” he said as he sent past president Steve Bach to go back to Bernstein’s Home Center for more supplies.

Ms. Guttenberg, who works for the Syosset School District spoke to the Community Health teachers who were very positive about it saying cleaning up the graffiti was right for them to do. 

Sunday they showed up ready to work, young members of the OBJC – some of whom live in Syosset, friends of members; and members of the Syosset Community Health Class who earned community service credit for their work. 

Kathy Nastri of the Community United Methodist Church of East Norwich, a member of the Interreligious Human Needs Council responded to the call and came to help. She said, “I was so choked up about it when I saw the building, and then saw the young people working. I think a lot of time  people say negative things about teens. Here I saw them all working together and laughing and picking up the paint brushes. I stepped back and thought ‘we have to appreciate what they are doing.’ They were very professional.” 

She said of the graffiti, “I thought it was done by a male – it was more aggressive than a female might have done. That face (drawn in black) was the size of the wall. It was breathtaking. There were a few symbols. It seemed to be a sad relationship kind of thing.”

On the other hand, the seriousness of the crime didn’t escape Ms. Nastri, that it was terrible to deface the synagogue. 

Ms. Guttenberg said, “The Town of Oyster Bay has a zero tolerance for graffiti in the town. They will certainly be looking into it. You see it in the city, not necessarily in a small commity like this.” 


A Cry from the Heart

Ms. Guttenberg said,  “Everyone has the same feeling seeing the graffiti on the wall. Everyone feels that it is sad.” There were small motifs in the overall wall. For instance: “Feel like rain”, and under a blue cloud, a figure sits on a bench. Rain   falls from the cloud and the words, “sitting, waiting, wishing” raining down on the figure. Another graffiti says, “The eyes are the window of the soul,” and above are two eyeballs marked love and hate..” 

Another area has the words, “You stood there stoned.” There are hearts and peace signs scattered around the motifs. 

Ms. Guttenberg commented that an artist can create a beautiful piece of graffiti when asked to do so and to put it in a public place. “Here it is damage rather than expressing themselves where it can be seen. Maybe it was to show their friends what they have done. Sometimes they put them on the Internet. The tag is so that it says ‘this is mine,’ this is what I have done. This one says ‘you’ll never know who I am’.”

The 2nd Precinct Police report had two other incidents of graffiti making.

• Sometime between March 4, at 3 p.m. and March 6 at 10 a.m. a fence on Barry Lane in Syosset was spray painted with graffiti. 

• There was also a case of criminal mischief reported to have happened between March 12 at 10 p.m. and March 13 at 8:30 a.m. Paint balls were shot at a residence on Clear Meadow Court in Woodbury.

The 2nd Precinct is investigating the graffiti incident at the Oyster Bay Jewish Center and considers this an active investigation.

 Graffiti appears to come in spurts and more cases have happened lately, possibly because it is getting warmer. Every once in a while a few cases erupt. Officers have been reminding vendors of spray paint and the rules to not sell it to minors.

On a positive note, the work is not by gangs, it just seems to be local kids causing it, said a police source. Much of the graffiti is indecipherable but the police are keeping an eye on it. If you have information about the crime you can call the 2nd Precinct at 573-6200.