The Pacific School of Religion on Scenic Avenue is grappling with two anti-Semitic incidents on campus earlier this month. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When a staff member at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley entered the chapel for a regular service two weeks ago, she discovered that someone had drawn a swastika inside the bible displayed in the room.

Later, staff found a piece of paper with “Adolph Hitler” scribbled on it tacked onto the nearby bulletin board.

The school’s administrators believe the incidents happened at the same time, on Nov. 13, but haven’t figured out who is responsible.

The anti-Semitic acts have “impacted our community,” said Pacific School of Religion President David Vasquez-Levy. “It feels unsettling to have someone walk into our space and make this expression of hatred.”

Students, faculty and staff gathered at the Holy Hill chapel Tuesday to discuss the two cases, which left many rattled. Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of the Graduate Theological Union, and Seth Brysk, Central Pacific regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, joined Vasquez-Levy to discuss the national uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, the nature of hatred, and safety on campus.

After the event, participants huddled in the rain outside the chapel to bury the defaced bible, which they had further decorated after the incident with colorful drawings. It is Jewish custom to preserve or bury sacred texts that are out of use.

Pacific School of Religion students and staff drew happier images over the defaced bible before burying it. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Vasquez-Levy said he decided to hold Tuesday’s event to educate community members and “reclaim the space” of the chapel.

“As speech and acts of hatred are expressed, we counter with acts of solidarity,” he told Berkeleyside.

The Pacific School of Religion is a Christian seminary that trains clergy through master’s degree and certificate programs, but emphasizes interfaith connections and has some Jewish students, Vasquez-Levy said. Lehmann is also the first Jewish president of the Graduate Theological Union, the consortium that includes the Pacific School of Religion. 

At the Tuesday event, some of the 40 to 50 people in attendance said they were concerned about repeat incidents and wondered if they should fear for their physical safety. The campus on North Berkeley’s Holy Hill is open, and the chapel entrance, set back a bit from Scenic and Le Conte avenues, is accessible from the street.

The drawing and note were discovered just a couple weeks after a gunman, thought to be white-supremacist Robert Bowers, killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Pacific School of Religion President David Vasquez-Levy (left), the Anti-Defamation League’s Seth Brysk and Graduate Theological Union President Daniel Lehmann discuss the recent events in the chapel. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Holy Hill on Tuesday, attendees turned to Brysk, of the Anti-Defamation League, for insight into the frequency and context of anti-Semitic acts.

Brysk pointed to new data showing major spikes in such incidents. New FBI figures, released the day the vandalism was discovered at PSR, found a 37% increase in anti-Jewish hate crimes between 2016 and 2017 — and a 17% increase in hate crimes overall. The Anti-Defamation League’s own analysis found a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents that year, the largest year-over-year increase the organization has ever documented, Brysk said. There was a particularly significant bump in those incidents on school and college campuses.

Brysk said hate crimes and incidents are vastly under-reported because many victims are wary of law enforcement, immigrants may be worried about revealing their statuses to the government, or people simply brush off the events. Brysk implored his audience to report even legal cases of anti-Semitism or hate speech, to help organizations like his track trends and understand more about the context. He said free speech is a critical right, but that it’s important to recognize that expressions of hatred “can be a harbinger of more sinister things.”

“A bigoted remark is not one that should be left unchallenged,” Brysk said. “We like to say that Auschwitz wasn’t built with bricks — it was built with words. Because in order to commit that kind of crime against humanity, you have to prepare society for it. You have to prepare neighbors to allow their neighbors to be turned in.” 

Burying the bible. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Vasquez-Levy said no similar incidents have occurred previously at the Pacific School of Religion. He said the administration notified the Berkeley Police Department immediately.

The swastika was “crudely done with Sharpie,” according to Vasquez-Levy, on top of Psalm 125, which ends with a prayer for peace in Israel.

As participants buried the vandalized book, they spoke their favorite biblical phrases aloud and concluded by singing the refrain of “Ella’s Song,” an anti-racism anthem written in honor of activist Ella Baker.

After the burial, one faculty member said she was struggling to figure out how exactly to talk to her students about the anti-Semitic incidents. The professor, Rebecca Esterson, teaches the history of biblical interpretation and Jewish-Christian relations, so the news has been “really hitting lots of nerves,” she said.

While no stranger to the conflict alluded to or perpetuated by the recent acts, Esterson said she “never expected something to happen here on campus. It was a real shock to hear about this.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...