My Family Was Proud To Display A Yard Sign Identifying Us As Jews. Then A Stranger Targeted Us.

"This small act of destruction made me look at the neighbourhood I’ve lived in for over a decade, where I’ve always felt safe and welcomed, in a new way."
A suburb in Brisbane, Australia.
Andrew Merry via Getty Images
A suburb in Brisbane, Australia.

The fire in our front yard began quickly, almost casually.

A disheveled, middle-aged white man walked down the sidewalk, talking to himself about “persecuting Jews.” He glanced at the sign my family put on our front fence over a year ago that reads, “Abortion Bans Are Against Our Religion.” The sign was a gift from our rabbi, who received it from the National Council of Jewish Women.

The man barely slowed down as he held a lighter to the sign before walking on. Several minutes later, a different man walking in the opposite direction saw the smoke and the flame. He hurried to our porch, grabbed our garden hose and put out the fire. Then he, too, walked away.

My family and I did not witness any of this as it happened. We were home, but my husband was in the backyard, I was working in my office, and our 10-year-old daughter was reading in her bedroom. We didn’t see the charred sign until later that Saturday afternoon.

Our home security camera, which we originally installed to deter package thieves, had recorded the entire sequence of events, as well as the arsonist’s antisemitic rant.

Antisemitic activity in the United States has grown in recent years. In March, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 36% increase in such incidents in 2022, including harassment, threats and vandalism. As a member of my synagogue’s board of directors, I have been involved in numerous conversations about the best way to keep our congregation, which worships near the U.S. Capitol, safe from threats. But this was the first time that my family had been targeted.

For over a year, our sign had drawn compliments from our neighbours and been the catalyst for thoughtful conversations with friends and strangers alike. A number of people appreciated the reminder that, although the loudest voices are talking about using religious beliefs to limit reproductive rights, it is possible to be both religious and pro-choice.

My husband and I, and especially our daughter, were proud to display an item that not only spoke to our pro-choice values, but publicly identified us as Jews.

After the fire, though, I felt intensely vulnerable. The arsonist did not know our names or what we looked like, but his attack felt deeply personal: If we were not Jewish, he would not have set our property on fire.

I told myself that it was just a burned sign, that it could have been so much worse. But this small act of destruction made me look at the neighbourhood I’ve lived in for over a decade, where I’ve always felt safe and welcomed, in a new way.

How many people who walked past our house everyday were also antisemitic? How many would say that we were asking for this kind of reaction by being so public about our religion? As I stared at the charred plants and remnants of the melted sign, I felt as though anyone walking past would see the damage and immediately know what happened and why.

The vandalised sign.
Photo Courtesy Of Sarah Erdreich
The vandalised sign.

My husband and I reported the arson to the police. We knew that the odds of this man being caught, much less charged with a crime, were slim to none. But we made the report anyway because it is important to create a record of every antisemitic attack, no matter how minor it may seem. Practically, law enforcement and organisations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network can use these reports to establish patterns of behaviour, increase security in certain communities as needed, and head off future attacks, among other measures.

But I also felt an emotional reason to report the attack, one that is intrinsically tied to my Jewish faith. Each Shabbat service in my synagogue includes a time to say the names of loved ones who need a prayer for healing, and to name deceased relatives and friends. Speaking these names out loud, especially for those who have passed away, is a way of honouring a person, paying witness to their life and their memory.

Creating a written report of the fire in my yard felt similarly meaningful. I wanted there to be a record that in 2023, a family living in one of the most liberal cities in this country was targeted for being Jewish. I wanted this shonda, this shame, to be counted when the ADL, SCN and other organisations release their reports on antisemitic incidents that occurred this year, because each of those incidents deserves to be named, and spoken about, and remembered.

Perhaps in the future, these statistics and stories will seem like a sad relic of a blinkered past. Maybe one day my daughter’s generation will look back on the records of not just antisemitic attacks but all hate crimes, and marvel that our society was ever so angry, so afraid, so casually cruel and destructive.

That is my hope. But I have been to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have gone to Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It Is impossible not to worry about the numbers, the sentiments, the emboldened antisemites, bigots and racists seeming to become louder every day.

My family will focus on repairing what can be repaired. Our plants will grow back, our fence will be fixed. We are keeping our eyes open in the hope of seeing the good Samaritan who extinguished the fire, so we can thank him.

The evening of the fire, my husband, my daughter and I looked at our charred sign.

“We’re going to get a new one, right?” our daughter asked.

My first thought was no. If we did, I would never be able to see someone pause by our front fence again without wondering if they were reaching for matches, or worse. Replacing the sign felt irresponsible and provocative — but it also felt courageous, another way to bear witness.

We put the new sign in our front yard a week later. It has the exact same message as the ruined one. But this one says something additional: that we are still here and we will not be silent.