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Community gathers in support of Florida Holocaust Museum after antisemitic vandalism

More than 100 people gathered outside the building Thursday in a night of reflection, prayer and song.
Holocaust survivor Toni Rinde shares her story during a Unite Against Hate vigil outside the Florida Holocaust Museum Thursday in St. Petersburg.
Holocaust survivor Toni Rinde shares her story during a Unite Against Hate vigil outside the Florida Holocaust Museum Thursday in St. Petersburg. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]
Published Jun. 4
Updated Jun. 4

When Toni Rinde first heard about the antisemitic vandalism at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg last week, she wanted to cry.

But the Holocaust survivor said she didn’t want the vandals to win, or give in to the fear they provoked. On Thursday, she addressed more than 100 people gathered outside the museum who had come to express solidarity after the incident last week.

“We teach the lessons of the Holocaust in order to prevent future genocide,” she said. “Our work is not done.”

The St. Petersburg Police Department is searching for suspects and investigating the vandalism as a hate crime. Officers spotted “Jews are guilty” and a swastika spray painted in black on the side of the museum about 4 a.m. last Thursday. The city painted over the graffiti on the museum at 55 Fifth St. S by about 9:15 a.m. the same day.

According to The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitimic incidents, the United States saw more than 2,024 acts of vandalism, attacks and harassment in 2020, the third-highest number of incidents since the organization began tracking events in 1979.

City officials, politicians and religious leaders led community members in a night of reflection and song outside the museum, as they talked about how to address antisemitism. Organizers asked attendees to bring books with them to the event, symbolizing the importance of education in combatting antisemitism.

When Rabbi Philip Weintraub, who serves as president of Pinellas County Board of Rabbis, heard about the vandalism, he didn’t know what to tell his daughter.

Demonstrators raise books during the Unite Against Hate vigil outside the Florida Holocaust Museum Thursday in St. Petersburg. The group gathered Thursday in response to the recent vandalism.
Demonstrators raise books during the Unite Against Hate vigil outside the Florida Holocaust Museum Thursday in St. Petersburg. The group gathered Thursday in response to the recent vandalism. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

“It seems over and over, that Jews tend to be the canaries in the coal mine, showing when there is hate in the world,” he said.

Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, chair of the Interfaith Collective Empowerment Group of the Tampa Bay Area, Inc. gave an opening prayer. Several interfaith leaders also addressed the crowd.

“A community this beautiful, this blessed, this gifted and this talented cannot allow the seeds of hatred or cowardice and division to take root,” said Pastor J.C. Pritchett, president of the interdenominational ministerial alliance.

Elizabeth Gelman, the Florida Holocaust Museum’s executive director, asked the crowd to take three actions after Thursday’s vigil: Promote the museum to help it reach its goal of 300,000 visitors next year, advocate for accurate education around the Holocaust in local school districts and support the museum financially.

Rabbi Joel Simon, president of the Tampa Rabbinical Association, said acts of hate can either drive communities apart or bring them together. He reflected on another incident of antisemitic vandalism on a synagogue in Kentucky, and how the community worked to educate two teens who were caught in the act.

“My prayer tonight is that this swastika, that these acts of hatred, fear and ignorance that are plaguing our country and our world today inspire us to wash them away,” he said. “May they inspire us to reach out to those we don’t know.”

Anyone with information about the incident can call the St. Petersburg Police Department at 727-893-7780 or by texting SPPD plus your tip to TIP411.