Community members come together to clean up antisemitic graffiti

By Carl Zebrowski

Tracey Billig has the kind of kids who go out in their neighborhood to pick up trash. They find and properly dispose of snack wrappers, plastic drink bottles, papers—the usual.

One day this winter, while making their cleanup rounds in Upper Macungie, they discovered a whole other level of trash: swastikas and other explicit antisemitic graffiti.

After the initial shock of such an act happening in their suburban neighborhood passed, Billig decided to turn the act of hate upside down. She and a bunch of friends and others from the Lehigh Valley Jewish community would come together in a show of unity to wipe away the hateful symbols and ugly scrawl.

At least 20 people turned out in early March to paint over the graffiti. The weather wasn’t very cooperative. A previously scheduled date had to be postponed due to snow, and this time, there was rain. But the cleanup area was sheltered inside a water-detention tunnel.

“I am so impressed with the Billigs for turning a traumatic experience into a learning and bonding opportunity for our Jewish community and the Jewish Day School,” said Joanna Powers, JDS head of school, whose eighth graders requested and received permission to join Billig’s son, their classmate, in the cleanup effort. “I am also very proud of our fantastic eighth grade for being willing and eager to help repair the vandalism. This will be an impactful memory that will stay with them.’

That winter day when the kids found the graffiti was January 7. What they saw inside the tunnel, a tunnel large enough to walk through upright, was swastikas, text that included “Palestine Lives Mattr Matter” (sic), “Nazis For Life,” and the N-word, along with lewd symbols and the like.

Words matter, emphasized Rabbi Moshe Re’em. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that ‘words create worlds,’” said Rabbi Re’em. “He noted that the Holocaust began by the use of evil words and that the Book of Proverbs reminds us that death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

Billig said her son had never experienced anything like this in person. “This is the first time I think he’s ever seen hate,” she said.

After the kids found the graffiti, she called the police and an officer from the Upper Macungie Township Police Department came to her house. She also called Tim Brooks, regional security advisor for the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley.

Brooks visited the scene and later got in contact with the police department. Since no one witnessed the vandalism, the investigation remains open.

Billig said that a Macungie police officer, Lieutenant Pete Nickischer, did follow up with her to say she should call him if she ever experienced anything like this again. She said he told her, “Hate has no place here.”

Billig initially had to think about going public with this story, and she finally decided that people needed to hear about it. “I want people to know it can happen in your backyard,” she said. “It could happen to anybody.”

The bright side of this whole situation, she said, was the opportunity for community members to gather to support one another through a troubling time.