Three Twin Cities incidents within three days last week reflected the recent rise in hate crimes in America. But the community's response showed how love is a much more profound force.
On Sept. 8, just weeks before opening to the public, the front of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul was defaced with white paint and the white nationalist phrase "Life, Liberty, Victory."
The next day, St. Paul Police responded to a report of 30 knocked-over grave markers in a Jewish Cemetery, Chesed Shel Emes.
And on Sept. 10, amid the Jewish High Holy Days, a threat of possible violence against worshipers led the Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park to close.
The three local incidents came as the nation is experiencing a 12-year high in hate crimes, according to a recent FBI report, with Asian Americans in particular seeing a sharp spike in attacks since the pandemic began.
But as evidenced in St. Paul, St. Louis Park and beyond, there is a breadth and depth of community support that sends a different message.
"It feels like a sense of violation, sadness, shock that doesn't just disappear," Mark Pfeifer, director of programs at the Hmong Cultural Center, told an editorial writer. "But it does feel really good to have the outpouring of support we've had from the Hmong community, but also the much broader community. So that helps a lot."
It also helps that the leaders of the center and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas, along with scores of other individuals and institutions, exhibited solidarity for each other.
"It shows that we're all in one community, and we have to support one another," Pfeifer said. "What was going on with the Jewish congregation, in the Jewish cemetery, really hit home."
As did the defacing of the Hmong center among members of the Jewish community. In a statement regarding the threat against Beth El, the JCRC said, "This terroristic threat coming during the holiest time of the Jewish year, and days after the desecration of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, is a painful reminder that such hate and intolerance are sadly always with us."
But so too are love, respect and kindness.
"Texts, e-mails, messages, phone calls from leaders of other nonprofits, elected officials — a steady succession of people were very concerned about the threat delivered against Beth El and the vandalism of the cemetery. … So that tells you the good news of community solidarity," Steve Hunegs, the JCRC's executive director, told an editorial writer.
Hunegs, who has done much to engender and energize such unity, said that security is both "hard," in the form of more patrols and other measures, as well as "soft," in terms of support of and from other institutions. "Community solidarity in the face of attacks at our institutions is essential. It protects all of us," Hunegs said. "I would hope there is a mobius strip of community security that links one community to another."
That also means arresting, charging and convicting the perpetrators of hate crimes. As an example, this week Emily Hari (formerly known as Michael Hari) was sentenced to 53 years in prison for orchestrating the 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq mosque in Bloomington.
The "mobius strip" of community has aided Beth El, which reopened in time for Yom Kippur services. The synagogue has had a long, strong partnership with the Catholic High School, Benilde-St. Margaret's, across the street, sharing everything from a parking lot to a community garden to Beth El clergy teaching at Benilde.
And there's a growing partnership with Wat Promwachirayan, the Thai temple (housed in a former Lutheran church) that's connected by a pedestrian bridge across Highway 100, where the synagogue has even held services in outdoor tents.
"I've lost count" of the expressions of support from across the community, Matt Walzer, Beth El's managing director, told an editorial writer. "What is sometimes lost is when these threats come — and yes, there is hate in society — there's also a lot of love and support."