A Kent synagogue is desperately seeking funds to improve security after its cemetery was desecrated, marking the eighth act of serious vandalism the shul has suffered in a decade.
Thugs knocked over and smashed several headstones in the burial ground that adjoins Chatham Memorial Synagogue in Rochester last Friday in the latest episode of desecration that has left some of the small population of Jews in the surrounding area fearful of physical attacks.
The fresh act of vandalism, which was discovered last Friday and is being treated by Kent Police as a potential hate crime, follows a string of similar incidents, which has seen faeces smeared on the synagogue, lewd graffiti sprayed on the building’s doors and repeated attacks on the gravestones in the historic Grade II listed cemetery.
Shul trustee Dr Dalia Halpern-Matthews said the cemetery alone had been attacked five times since 2013.
“We shouldn’t be having to put up with the mass destruction of something that should be sacred,” she said.
“The cemetery is very special obviously in terms of every individual grave, but when you consider that it is the only shul with a cemetery attached in the country, it is a very significant shul. It has been Grade II listed for many years.”
Despite the introduction of security at every service, one shul member remains too scared to worship in person as a result of the repeated attacks; last year, a CCTV camera installed to deter hooligans was ripped off the synagogue’s walls.
Now the JC is backing a fundraising campaign to secure the money needed to pay for urgent safety improvements.
£19,000 worth of damage was caused to Chatham Memorial Synagogue's cemetery in 2019 (Photo: Chatham Memorial Synagogue)
One act of vandalism took place overnight before Halpern-Matthews’ son’s bar mitzvah.
She said: “The graffiti had a depiction of genitalia and it said something about ‘f***ing religion’... My husband spent a few hours cleaning that off.”
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the fear of being attacked in person was so great, several members stopped attending services.
“It did get to a point where quite a few members of the community were really nervous,” Halpern-Matthews said.
One person still feels unable to attend the synagogue in person because of the security concerns, she added.
While the shul is insured, it has taken a long time to receive payments to cover repairs.
The damage, which appeared to have been caused by sledgehammers, was discovered hours before Yom Kippur.
The shul is trying to raise the money to pay for new CCTV cameras and a security gate, as well as a ramp to allow for security access, and has a fundraising target of £25,000.
John Weiner, the synagogue's president, said that despite the vandalism, there had been no instances of people attacking or abusing members.
After the most recent attack other faith leaders in the area, including the Medway Inter-Faith Action chair Ajaib Hussein, offered Weiner their support, he added.
A spokeswoman for Kent Police said: “At around 12pm on Friday 18 August 2023 Kent Police received a third-party report of criminal damage at a synagogue in Rochester.
“Officers have since spoken to representatives of the synagogue and this incident is being treated as a hate crime. Enquiries to locate those responsible for the damage are ongoing.”
To donate to fund security improvements for Chatham Memorial Synagogue visit www.chathamshul.org.uk