Current and former members of Waycross Hebrew Center were “outraged” and “astonished” by the late May break-in and vandalism of the Conservative synagogue. Built in 1952, the one-story synagogue serves a declining Jewish population in the area, which includes Blackshear, Alma and Baxley.
But they feel heartened by the incredible show of support by the general community, which was expressed in a Shabbat service June 7.
“When the citizens of Waycross heard [of the break-in], they wanted to help with donations and signs of empathy,” said Al Jacobson, who has served the synagogue in several positions, including his current role as caretaker. “We told them that this should be covered by insurance. They still wanted to show their support and a few asked if they can attend Shabbat services and, of course, we stated in the affirmative. We already have some Christians that attend every Friday night. The word got around.”
The news traveled fast. So did Jacobson when he received a call from police, who had been alerted when several synagogue windows were seen broken. “When they called me, I was six miles away. I put on my flashers to speed over,” Jacobson told the AJT. “At first they wouldn’t let me go in.”
Besides broken windows, someone apparently sprayed a fire extinguisher throughout the sanctuary, leaving a white residue over everything. Bottles of drinks and crackers were strewn about. A sterling silver topper to a menorah and an electric menorah were damaged, but not the ark or Torahs. Jacobson said there were no anti-Semitic messages anywhere, but lots of handprints and footprints. “The police have a lot of clues,” he said, adding that he believes a young person “who had a small dog with him” was involved. “It was probably someone who lives near there.”
Jacobson said the police, as well as the community, have “gone all out” to show their support for the few Jews left in the area and the synagogue which still has a kosher kitchen. But that support isn’t new. When his father died in 1970, “every store in town closed for the funeral.” Back then, Jewish-owned stores closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and “the other stores never advertised sales during the holidays out of respect.”
For the past 67 years, once a year, the Morris Jacobson Brotherhood Award has been given to a member of the community in memory of Jacobson’s father. “It makes the front page of the local newspapers. A few years ago, a 104-year-old black man won the award for doing so much for the community,” Jacobson told the AJT last fall, see www.atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com/waycross-jewish-small-town-start. Many of those past recipients planned to attend the special Friday night service.
As he’s done for other services, Rich Luskin, a former Waycross resident who now lives in Lilburn, led the Shabbat program. “I prefer not to think of it as a special service. It is a Shabbat service and that, in itself, is special,” says Luskin, who calls himself “the rabbi with a small ‘r’.”
Luskin said when he heard about the vandalism, he felt a “combination of outrage and thankfulness that no one was injured. Why anyone would do something like this to our little synagogue, or any house of worship is totally beyond my comprehension. At this point, we are still waiting for the police to complete their investigation. Hopefully, the culprits will be brought to justice. And we may find out the reasons for this act.”
Luskin is not the only former Waycross resident who now lives in the Atlanta area. Among them is Jacobson’s nephew, Lonnie Cooper, chairman of Cooper Holdings Inc. in Atlanta. It was Cooper’s mother who created the synagogue’s three-paneled stained-glass windows depicting “all the traditional symbols,” Cooper said.
Although Jacobson continues a 67-year tradition of sending out a quarterly newsletter keeping former congregants, as far away as Israel, informed about Waycross Hebrew Center, he said “most former members found out through Facebook.”