By Lee Chottiner
LEXINGTON – Dec. 12’s violent incident during the Chabad menorah-lighting event serving the University of Kentucky is the worst sustained by that Jewish organization, but hardly the first.
In an interview with Community, Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, director of Chabad of the Bluegrass and rabbi of Chabad at the UK Jewish Student Center (JSC), said the incident, in which a participant was dragged by an SUV, represents an escalation in attacks, from words to vandalism to outright violence.
Litvin described several disturbing incidents at the organization’s original location and at its current site, the JSC.
The night of the incident, a group of five Chabad supporters, so few due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was about to light the menorah outside the center when a man drove by, cursing about a car blocking the road, according to one witness. Litvin then heard the driver use an anti-Semitic slur.
One participant, whom Litvin described as a “leading member of our community and a veteran,” placed himself between the group and the driver. “The guy just grabbed his arm, stepped on the gas and took off, dragged him about 30 yards up the street,” before getting away.
The victim, whom Chabad is not identifying, sustained muscle damage and pain, according to Litvin, but he insisted that the menorah be lit before he would go to the hospital. His injuries are not considered life-threatening.
The police are investigating.
One woman at the event, Kayla Woodson, director of inclusion and equity for the UK Student Government Association, said the driver was cursing, though she did not hear anything overtly anti-Semitic.
Woodson was attending the event as a supporter of Chabad. “There have been incidents in the past involving the Chabad house and I have reached out to the rabbi,” she said. “He invited me to come.”
The incident could represent a new level of attack against Chabad.
Litvin said the organization endured at least two incidents at its original location on Kentucky Court: Vandals destroyed their sign and drunken students shouted slurs.
Since the move to the new location on Columbia Avenue in 2016, Chabad’s sign has been knocked down – three times – its menorah has been damaged, and someone tore a mezuzah from the front doorpost.
“The FBI thinks that [the mezuzah incident] showed planning and intent because a mezuzah is not easily spotted,” Litvin said.
He also described anti-Semitic incidents elsewhere on campus, including protestors shouting anti-Semitic lines during a lecture by Israeli Defense Force veterans speaking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a Jewish student who had pennies thrown at her – an apparent reference to the canard that Jews are cheap.
UK President Eli Capilouto, who is Jewish, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the incident.
“The person who was injured is in our thoughts and prayers for a full recovery,” Capilouto said. “As the latest lights of Chanukah shine forth, let us be reminded of our mutual responsibility to seek, each day, to let the light of religious freedom and liberty shine brightly for everyone. Hate will have no harbor in our community.”
Gov. Andy Beshear also issued a statement condemning the incident, as did Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton.
Mindy Haas, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass, said she is working the with Secure Community Network (the official security organization of the North American Jewish community), the FBI and local police to keep Jewish Lexington safe.
Haas also said she is reaching out to the Anti-Defamation League and local PTAs to promote more education directed against hatred.
“Hate starts at home,” she said. “If we can work with the families in our community, [showing] that love is stronger than hate, maybe we can get somewhere.”
Litvin said the best way to thwart the escalation from hatred to actual violence is to first counter it when it is spoken, written or tweeted.
“Words have to be countered – every time,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to explain to my children why there are 12 cop cars at the menorah-lighting; that shouldn’t be my responsibility as a parent in 2020.”