Brian Kresge, president of Congregation Beth Israel, stands beside the area where a white swastika was spray painted in front of Beth Israel’s function room, which is undergoing renovations, on York Street Thursday night. Kresge covered it with black paint. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A group of teenagers allegedly painted a swastika outside Maine’s oldest synagogue last week, a possible hate crime that Bangor police are investigating.

A member of Congregation Beth Israel who lives near the Bangor synagogue saw several teenagers outside the building between 8:30 and 10 p.m. on Thursday, according to President Brian Kresge. They had allegedly painted a white swastika on the street not far from the congregation’s function room that is undergoing renovations.

As the synagogue member interrupted them, they attempted to paint over the Nazi symbol, then fled, Kresge said Monday.

Kresge said that he used black spray paint to cover up the swastika before Friday night services.

The congregation, located at 144 York Street, had high-definition security cameras installed in 2012 after anti-semitic symbols were spray painted on the front of the synagogue. Beth Abraham, the Orthodox synagogue located across the road at 145 York Street, also was victimized eight years ago.

Bangor police are investigating a possible hate crime outside Maine’s oldest synagogue in Bangor where a white swastika was spray painted in front of Beth Israel’s function room on York Street Thursday night. [Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN]

Rabbi Bill Siemers of Beth Israel said Monday that the security system captured the faces of three juveniles who were climbing on the back of the building around the same time Thursday. That footage will be turned over to Bangor police.

Until police interview the juveniles, Siemers said, it won’t be clear whether they acted out of hate or ignorance.

“The goal is, if they are kids, to have them understand the gravity of what they’re doing,” the rabbi said. “There could be a lack of understanding about the context of these terrible symbols that they’re playing with.”

Kresge said the congregation, organized in 1888, would rather have the perpetrators participate in a restorative justice program than be charged criminally. The three juveniles charged in the 2012 incidents met with members of Bangor’s Jewish community in a court-imposed restorative justice session in which they told the teenagers why the graffiti was so offensive.

Kresge said that the incident “exists on a continuum of bigotry and insensitivity that I think we often tell ourselves doesn’t exist in Maine.”

Rabbi Bill Siemers (left) of Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor; Brian Kresge, president of Congregation Beth Israel; and Congregation Beth Israel, Maine’s oldest synagogue. [Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN]

Recently, he said, teens in a Hampden school gave his daughter the Nazi salute after a Holocaust education unit at which his wife spoke because she has relatives who are survivors.

“It’s my sense that these kids are old enough to know that Nazi symbology painted near a synagogue is a hurtful thing,” he said. “When caught, I’d hope rather than legal punishment, we could have the opportunity to educate them as to why Nazi symbols are so horrid to Jews.”

The Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate group founded in 1913, recorded 2,107 acts of anti-semitism in 2019, the highest number since the organization began tracking incidents in 1979. Assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S., according to the organization.

Kresge said that he reported the incident to the league’s New England office in Boston.