The Jewish lawyer who is defending a synagogue vandal

From murderers to sex offenders, some of the least desirable citizens of Maryland’s Montgomery County have walked through the doors of attorney Barry Helfand’s office.

But it took a quiet teenager to make Helfand question his responsibility as a lawyer.

Sitting in Helfand’s Rockville office this spring, 18-year-old Sebastian Espinoza-Carranza detailed how he, along with three juveniles, had spray-painted swastikas, “KKK” and other graffiti on the Shaare Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

In April, Espinoza-Carranza confessed to vandalizing the Conservative synagogue.

Helfand, who is Jewish, fretted briefly that he was about to be asked to represent a neo-Nazi, someone who hated Jews enough to commit a crime against them.

Typically, in murder cases, Helfand said he learns about the victims. But in this case, Helfand thought, “I am the victim of the crime. When one Jew is attacked, it’s almost as if all are attacked.”

He added, “I don’t think there is anyone who is Jewish who hears about this [incident] who isn’t offended.”

But Helfand pulled himself together, realizing he didn’t know Espinoza-Carranza — nor did the young man know him. He wondered if the high school senior noticed the mezuzah on his office door, or if he even knew what a mezuzah was.

He assumed the Espinoza-Carranza family saw his kiddush cup with a Jewish star prominently displayed on a window ledge behind his desk, placed where anyone sitting in a chair facing the attorney would notice. But Helfand observed no reaction — positive or negative — over the Jewish symbol.

“I don’t know why they picked me,” Helfand said of his clients. “Nobody tells me why.”

After listening to the young man’s retelling of the April 7 incident, the attorney immediately concluded that “this was no anti-Semite. This was a kid.”

Helfand added: “He is just a young man who made a terrible, horrible mistake and is not a horrible person.”

He decided to represent Espinoza-Carranza in his legal troubles — they could send him to prison for nine years — believing that as a Jew, he had a crucial role to play.

“He needed a Jewish education,” Helfand said of the teen. “If nothing else, he was going to learn Jews have compassion.”

Helfand said he arranged a trip to the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., so that his client could “learn why the Nazi symbol strikes such a chord in the Jewish heart.” He also reached out to Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah to schedule a private meeting in his office with Espinoza-Carranza.

Though some friends and family cautioned Helfand against taking the case, the attorney said his goal was to keep the teen out of prison and possibly have his record erased in the future.

“I want to time this thing so if he wants to go to college, wants to get a job,” his arrest and guilty plea won’t impede that, Helfand said.

In September, Espinoza-Carranza pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court to damaging a religious institution, defacing religious property and malicious destruction of property valued at more than $1,000.

While each of the three charges carries a maximum three-year prison term, Espinoza-Carranza is expected to get five months’ probation and no jail time when he is sentenced on Oct. 20.

Under the plea agreement, Espinoza-Carranza must visit the Holocaust museum, which he’s already done, write an essay about the visit and speak with representatives of Shaare Torah.

The prosecutor in his case, senior assistant state’s attorney Sherri Koch, also is Jewish.

Asked if Espinoza-Carranza’s anti-Semitic act affected how she approached the case, Koch said no.

“I wouldn’t treat any case differently,” whether it involved a synagogue, church or mosque, she said.

“The community was the victim,” Koch said, and it is always the job of the prosecutor “to protect the community.”

Vandals hit Philadelphia synagogue

Officials at a Philadelphia synagogue are calling a BB gun attack on the synagogue a hate crime.

“What else could it be?” Maxine Goldman, co-president of Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezreth, said Monday morning of the May 10 attack in which dozens of BBs reportedly were shot at the building.

The attack occured while about 130 people were attending a synagogue event.

Goldman said two police officers came within minutes of being called that evening, but detectives have not yet returned to investigate further. She said windows, the door and door frame of the building were damaged.

Synagogues officials are awaiting an insurance estimate for the damage.

“Quite a bit of work needs to done,” Goldman said. “We’re hesitant” that it might happen again.

Three years ago, the synagogue was defaced with swastikas.

Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery vandalized

After vandals stuck Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, Jewish leaders are asking area metal dealers to check for wrought-iron objects that might have been stolen from the cemetery.

Vandals recently damaged 16 gravesites and stole 47 items from the Weissensee Cemetery in the former East Berlin. According to the community, renovations on some of the tombs had been completed as recently as last April. The stolen items are worth about $16,000.

“But the immaterial damage is much greater,” the community said in a statement issued Monday.

“Theft in general is a serious offense,” Grigory Kristal, head of cultural affairs for the community, said. “But to destroy graves at the Jewish cemetery demonstrates a lack of respect and lack of understanding of the past.”

Observers suggested the motive was profit and not anti-Semitism, since specifically metal objects were removed. Such thefts reportedly are on the rise at cemeteries all over Berlin from all religious denominations. Police patrols and surveillance have been stepped up at Weissensee.

The Jewish community plans to contact metal dealers to warn them to be vigilant regarding sellers of potentially stolen goods.

The cemetery is the subject of a recent award-winning documentary, called “Im Himmel unter der Erde,” or “In Heaven Underground.”

Czech Holocaust memorial is vandalized

Vandals spray-painted graffiti on a Holocaust memorial in the Czech Republic.

The memorial in Ostrava, the republic’s third largest city, was vandalized over the weekend, Ostrava police told the Czech news agency CTK.

“The perpetrators sprayed the memorial with specific symbols,” a police spokeswoman said, without identifying the symbols.

CTK reported that police are looking to charge the as yet unknown perpetrators with hooliganism, vandalism and defamation of a nation, race and an ethnic or other group of persons. If convicted, they would face up to two years in prison.

Vandal gets probation for spray-painting swastikas

A man who spray-painted anti-Semitic slogans on three Jewish sites in Calgary was sentenced to 18 months probation.

Anti-Jewish graffiti and swastikas were painted on a Holocaust memorial and synagogues in the largest city in the Canadian province of Alberta in November 2009.

The man, who cannot be named under Canadian law because he was a teenager at the time of the offenses, was caught in Winnipeg in March 2010 and returned to Calgary. He was charged with inciting public hatred as well as with mischief to a place of religious worship motivated by hate—the first time that charge had been laid in Calgary.

He pleaded guilty to the charges and admitted he had been a member of a white supremacist group. During sentencing, he met with two Holocaust survivors who explained the impact of his crimes on them. His lawyer said the young man no longer belongs to any neo-Nazi groups.

In addition to probation, the man was ordered to complete 150 hours of community service.

Jewish school in Bulgaria vandalized

Anti-Semitic graffiti was spray-painted on the walls of a Jewish school in the capital of Bulgaria.

A Star of David equated with a Nazi swastika and the words “stop occupation” were spray-painted on the wall of the Dimcho Debeljanov Jewish School, the only Jewish school in Sofia.

The vandalism occurred Sunday, according to the European Jewish Press.  Apparently it is linked to current events in Israel.

“This act of vandalism has been made a week before the Jewish holiday of Pesach and the Christian Easter, read an official statement from Shalom, which represents the Jewish community of Bulgaria. “At a time when all people, without difference in ethnicity or religion, should open their hearts for the good, these vandals have sown hate; hate which verges on terrorism.

The statement went to say, “We appeal to citizens and to civil society to react definitely against such acts and to remember that whoever sows hate today reaps storms tomorrow.”

Approximately 5,000 Jews are living in Bulgaria. 

World ORT, which supports the school, said in a letter sent to Bulgaria’s Ministry of Education that “Bulgaria is justifiably proud of its friendly and protective relations with its Jewish community. World ORT trusts that this outstanding tradition will be translated into constructive efforts to ensure that the ugly upsurge in anti-Semitism seen in so many parts of the world does not manifest itself in your beautiful country.”