Column: A fight against anti-Semitism, and Harry Belafonte’s activism hailed

This Menorah outside the SDSU Chabad was destroyed by vandals this month.
This menorah outside the SDSU Chabad was destroyed by vandals early this month. The community has rallied to replace it.
(Courtesy photo)

The community has rallied to replace a vandalized menorah outside a synagogue by SDSU; A tribute to Harry Belafonte goes on display in the Solana Beach library


In the early morning of April 2, a surveillance camera recorded a young man destroying a 12-foot-tall menorah sculpture that stood in front of the SDSU Chabad at 6115 Montezuma Road.

The face of the suspect, who was wearing a hoodie, wasn’t identifiable on the video, but the violence and rage expressed in the brazen attack were clear.

“The day this happened I got a call from the rabbi,” says Point Loma resident Barry Soper. “I told him I was going to help.” Soper, a friend of the synagogue’s rabbi, Chalom Bourdjnah, is incensed at the senseless destruction and is rallying community support.

Soper, a veteran political fundraiser, wasted no time in launching a campaign to replace the menorah with one far more difficult to vandalize.

“The menorah is to shine light into the community. We don’t want darkness. We want light,” Soper says.

This is not the first time the menorah sculpture, a Jewish symbol of peace and welcome, has been targeted. It was erected in 2012 after its predecessor was destroyed in a car crash.

Twice before this month, it has been vandalized in the dark of night, says Rabbi Bourdjnah. On June 20, 2021, a woman shook the frame of the menorah so violently that one of its aluminum branches broke. She was never caught.

In 2017, a small group of college students made anti-Semitic remarks as they did pull-ups on the sculpture’s branches, badly damaging it. Witnesses followed them and took down their license plate number. The vandals, who were attending the University of San Diego, wrote an apology letter and performed community service to atone.

Two years ago, a few San Diego State students entered the Chabad, removed photos of religious rituals and made fun of them on Instagram posts.

Campus police referred this latest vandalism incident to San Diego police, who are investigating, Bourdjnah reports.

The good news is that a replacement menorah constructed of titanium, a smaller version of a prominent Jewish menorah sculpture in London’s Trafalgar Square, is currently being fabricated at a cost of more than $25,000. It is expected to be installed in late summer in a ceremony attended by community and religious groups.

Instead of division, the hate crime has inspired members of the community to unite. “We are creating a landmark,” says Bourdjnah, noting that the attacker’s attempt to spread hatred ended up having the opposite effect.

The rabbi is a member of the Anti-Semitism Task Force created by SDSU officials that began actively meeting in the fall of 2021 to address acts of anti-Semitism and promote educational events on campus.

Soper’s son, Joshua, is overseeing the Menorah construction, and his son-in-law, Philip Plourde, is installing a state-of-the-art camera security system at the Chabad. Not wanting to fence off a place of worship, they decided to make it less inviting to trespassers by planting cactus along the perimeter.

Plus, Connie Fiss, a friend of Soper who owns a painting company, has offered to paint the entire building at no cost.

Among contributors to Soper’s campaign are three successive San Diego County assessor/recorder/clerks: Greg Smith, Ernie Dronenburg and current Assessor Jordan Marks. Soper helped orchestrate their election campaigns. Now, he says, they are helping with his campaign.

The San Diegan is well-versed in religious intolerance. He is writing a book that focuses on two prominent local hate crimes — an arson on the Islamic Center of Escondido in March 2019 and the fatal attack a month later on the Chabad of Poway. A gunman entered the synagogue and opened fire, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding its rabbi and two others.

Thursday was the fourth anniversary of that attack and was marked by a memorial service for Kaye at the synagogue.

“The rise of anti-Semitism is frightening,” says Soper, who calls the menorah a beacon of hope for all people to learn to love instead of hate.

The voice of Harry Belafonte

Marsha Brook was greeted by the news flash of Harry Belafonte’s death when she awoke April 25. She knew she had to do something to honor the passing of Belafonte, who was celebrated for his activism as much as his singing talent.

Brook, 78, is an artist and sculptor who, at her own expense, is creating busts and bronze bas-reliefs of the faces of American activists. So far, she has created 50 faces and is working toward a goal of 100.

“Primarily it’s an educational effort to share with young folks, and anyone who is interested, the positive aspects of activism,” Brook says. It’s also a way “to encourage people to speak out when they feel something isn’t right but do it in a constructive way.”

She exhibits her artwork, with bios of the individuals, in schools, libraries and other facilities, including the Braille Institute San Diego Center. (Instead of “hands off” warnings, visitors there were invited to touch the bronze facial features.)

For the past three years, each month or so she has rotated exhibits at the branch library in Solana Beach, which is attached to the Earl Warren Middle School.

This March, three prominent women were put on display in recognition of Women’s History Month — until Tuesday, that is. Brook rushed to the library with three replacement figures. Harry Belafonte is the centerpiece, flanked by civil rights activists Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.

“He was an extraordinary activist — very courageous,” says Brook, noting that Belafonte organized a concert that raised $72,000 to support Freedom Riders’ bus trips through the South protesting segregation. “He spoke out throughout his life on injustice,” she says.

Solana Beach library branch manager Kathleen Sullivan Long praised Brook’s thoughtfulness in sharing her talent and information in a timely and meaningful way tied to what is happening in the world.

“She was on it before we were even aware Harry Belafonte had died,” Long says.