When Rabbi Jan Rosenberg was called to check out vandalism at his congregation’s property on West Veterans Highway, he expected the usual. There would likely be some physical damage, even the possibility of objectionable graffiti.
What he encountered was a “war zone,” with as many as 60 broken windows, including the front door, and the distinct smell of fireworks someone had shot off indoors.
“We’ve had thousands of dollars worth of damage before, and now it’s in the tens of thousands,” Rosenberg said.
What remains unclear are the motivations that led to the incident, far from the first time vandals have defaced a building that the congregation, called Beth Zion, has long hoped to convert into a synagogue.
The congregation purchased the site in 2001 and received township approval for the construction. But it’s an expensive undertaking, and Rosenberg has been hesitant to start site work after the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the street, it looks like a simple yellow building with a large barn on one end. There isn’t any fixed signage, just the occasional temporary lawn sign redirecting new congregants to the nearby Hope Chapel, where the congregation meets for its services.
Jackson Police Chief Matthew Kunz described the case as an incident of “adolescent-type criminal mischief.” Police haven’t made any arrests but Kunz said it was likely juveniles.
The building has been vandalized before, enough that Jackson police officers routinely patrol the premises — a patrolling officer noticed and first reported the damage on Dec. 14. The building is set back a few hundred feet from West Veterans Highway, in a dimly lit and rural area.
“I believe it’s simply a crime of opportunity,” Kunz said. “But there’s no way to know until we actually identify an offender.”
While Jackson has a growing Orthodox Jewish community, Beth Zion is a Messianic Jewish congregation. Messianic Judaism teaches Jewish law but also regards Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Most major Jewish denominations reject the faith, which shares similar teachings as Christian organizations.
That hasn’t stopped vandals from defacing the building with antisemitic graffiti. Nearly 10 years ago, someone spray-painted “Jews stay out” on the building, Rosenberg said. And last year, the building was vandalized with graffiti praising Adolf Hitler and denigrating Jewish people.
“We’ve been here 20-something years, and never really thought of ourselves of being a victim of these things or in that category (of hate crimes),” Rosenberg said. “But even if it turns out just to be kids, where do they make that connection?”
According to the FBI, more than half of all religion-based hate crimes last year were driven by anti-Jewish bias.
In New Jersey, there were 512 bias incidents targeting Jewish people in 2023 through October, according to state police data, already more than the 446 reported in all of 2022. A total of 133 bias incidents targeting Jewish people were reported in October alone, a trend State Attorney General Matthew Platkin said accelerated after the war between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 7.
And in 2022, more than one in six bias incidents against Jewish people occurred in Lakewood, Jackson, Toms River and Howell, according to police bias incident reports.
Over the last year, an Orthodox Jewish community has rapidly expanded in Jackson, and tensions have grown in lockstep. Last week, the Jackson Township Council approved a series of ordinances regulating religious uses — such as private religious schools and houses of worship — agreed to as part of settlement agreements with the Department of Justice, New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group.
Numerous residents criticized the ordinances as caving to the township’s Orthodox community, which was accused of everything from “getting everything they want” to a “hostile takeover” and even “cultural genocide.” In week since, the fervor has grown across social media.
While Rosenberg walks around Jackson with a yarmulke and tzitzit, ritual tassels worn by some observant Jews, he said he’s never faced overt bigotry in person.
“These are things that solidify us, in a sense,” Rosenberg said. “They don’t care which kind of Jewish you are.”