Portland’s Etz Chaim Synagogue has always encouraged people to come through its open doors for Saturday services.

But this past weekend, for the first time in its 102-year history, a staff member was stationed in front, letting people in.

Sara Frajnd, right, and daughter Ella Frajnd comfort one another during prayer at a vigil at Beth El Temple in Portland on Oct. 11, to mourn the terror attacks in Israel. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We’ve resisted it for years,” Rabbi Gary Berenson said Monday. “It’s a big cultural change for us because it goes against what we do. I hope it’s a temporary measure.”

Jewish leaders in Maine and elsewhere are on heightened alert about an increase in antisemitic rhetoric and behavior after a brutal surprise attack on Israel by Hamas militants two weeks ago began a war that has cost thousands of lives.

As Hamas continues to threaten the lives of hostages and Israel prepares for a ground offensive in Gaza, there is growing unease that the violence could spark broader conflicts overseas and pose a danger to American Jews, and Muslims, too – if not through actual violence then by fear and intimidation.

In the two weeks since the Oct. 7 attack, Portland police have received 11 reports of hate speech, compared to eight incidents between Sept. 1 and Oct. 6, according to department spokesman Brad Nadeau. Most of them have been antisemitic flyers or leaflets. Police say many such incidents go unreported.


Nadeau said he could not immediately answer questions about what, if any, action the department is taking in response the reports.

Officials from several Maine law enforcement agencies told the Press Herald this summer that prosecuting hate is challenging, because racist protests, pamphlets and other forms of expression are protected as free speech under the First Amendment. Unless racist remarks are accompanied by threats of violence or other crimes, police are often limited in their ability to make arrests.

Last week, Bates College in Lewiston reported antisemitic graffiti on campus and officials at Cony High School in Augusta investigated an antisemitic message that was left by a student.

Portland resident Marcie Oechslie was leaving her Cumberland Avenue apartment last Tuesday evening when she found an antisemitic flyer bearing the headline “Holocaust = Fake News” on the building’s steps. Oechslie is not Jewish and does not know of any Jewish tenants in the building. Based on the contact information for an antisemitic hate group listed at the bottom of the flyer, she believes it was intended to be a recruitment tool.

In addition to contacting the police, she posted about the hate speech on the social media site Nextdoor to warn her neighbors, she said. At least two people in Portland commented on the post to say they had received similar messages in recent weeks.

“It’s just disgusting,” Oechslie said. “I have Jewish friends. It puts me more in their shoes when I see it of how scary this must be.”


The flyers are adding to the fears among members of local synagogues, leaders say.

“Anecdotally, yes, we are hearing that there is more white supremacist and antisemitic flyering happening in the community,” said Kate Shalvoy, executive director at Temple Beth El in Portland. “People are very scared right now.”

The synagogue, which also includes a school and daycare, recently hired armed security guards, something it hasn’t done in the past. City police have been more visible too, Shalvoy said.

“There was an officer out front when I pulled up to work today,” she said.

Rabbi Moshe Wilansky of Chabad Lubavitch of Maine is worried, too. Last week, he and other members of the community held a vigil in Monument Square in solidarity with the people of Israel.

“There were many cars that drove by and people who shouted disturbing things,” he said. “I was surprised by that.”


Even before the recent turmoil in the Middle East, there had been a noticeable increase in white supremacist and antisemitic behavior in the U.S. in recent years, fueled in part by the country’s increased polarization.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks white supremacist propaganda incidents (defined as public demonstrations, banner drops, hate-based graffiti) has noted a dramatic increase over the last five years, from 1,214 incidents nationwide in 2018 to 6,751 in 2022. Although the numbers in Maine remain small, they are increasing as well, from 13 in 2018 to 30 in 2022. So far in 2023, there have been 24 incidents.


Rabbi Wilansky said antisemitism is not new, but he agreed with Shalvoy that vigilance is heightened of late.

“We had had discussions with police, and we have a security guard on site during Saturday prayers, but there is a limit to what we can do,” he said. “Because it really can be just one nutty person who gets the wrong information and gets worked up. It doesn’t have to be organized.”

Shalvoy said that when the temple held a prayer vigil for Israel on Oct. 11, it required participants to preregister. One person registered 20 times under the name George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party.


More recently, she said a man rode up to the synagogue on a bicycle last week and was walking around the perimeter and near the school wing. A teacher went outside and told the man to leave, but the incident contributed to the growing unease.

“There is a real cost, an emotional cost, to being a leader in a community that is hated,” Shalvoy said. “And those views are freely and widely expressed by an increasing number of people.”

Berenson said parishioners at Etz Chaim appreciate the heightened security but are disheartened that it’s needed.

“We’re resigned that this is the age we live in,” he said.

Communities across the country have been dealing with an increase in antisemitic and anti-Muslim behavior over the last few weeks.

Police in Brookhaven, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, said multiple residents reported finding flyers with antisemitic and hateful messages last week, The Associated Press reported. Similar reports have occurred in greater San Diego and Chelsea, Michigan, among other places.


Last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters that he has directed the FBI and all U.S. Attorney offices in the country to be on alert for any behavior in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Also last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the number of reported threats has increased and there is concern things could worsen.

“Here in the U.S., we cannot and do not discount the possibility that Hamas or other foreign terrorist organizations could exploit the conflict to call on their supporters to conduct attacks on our own soil,” he said during a call with reporters.

Most threats have been deemed not credible by the agency, but Jewish and Muslim institutions have been targeted.

In Illinois, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy was fatally stabbed on Oct. 14 in a horrific act police are investigating as a hate crime. Joseph Czuba, 71, who was landlord to the boy’s family, has been charged with murder.

Staff Writer John Terhune contributed to this report.

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