Security increased at Vero Beach synagogue after anti-Semitic flyers found in yards, driveways

Corey Arwood
Treasure Coast Newspapers

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Law enforcement officials increased security at a local synagogue while an FBI-task force detective investigates sources of anti-Semitic flyers dropped “all over the county.”

Several Vero Beach residents walked out of their homes Thursday morning to find rice filled, plastic bags with flyers scrawled with anti-Semitic, hate-speech-laced conspiracies in their driveways.

One beachside homeowner said around 7:30 a.m., her husband returned from a walk and told her “you’re not going to believe what I (found)” in the driveway.

“They were all over the place,” said Iris Madison. “I’m worried about it, I’m very worried about personal attacks.”

Madison said it was the first time this has happened in her three years at the Vero Beach residence.

Some of the flyers were still seen in yards and driveways Friday, she said.

“Everybody in our neighborhood received them (and) I picked up anyone’s that I could see,” she said. “I just don’t want people to believe this stuff and this hatred to spew – I’d like to see more non-Jews and churches saying we cannot spew this.”

Both Indian River County sheriff's officials and Vero Beach police said they knew about the packages after several residents reported them.

Sheriff Eric Flowers said the packages are being processed in the agency’s forensics lab to “see where they’re coming from and who’s dropping them.”

“I have our detective who is a member of the FBI task force, he is working that,” said Flowers on Friday. “We’ve collected a number of them (packages).”

He said they’ve been reported throughout the county and in Vero Beach city limits.

Vero Beach police Master Police Officer Darrell Rivers said several barrier island residents brought the packages to the Police Department around 11 a.m. Thursday.

Rivers described them as “definitely anti-Semitic, definitely hate speech and definitely a first time for us.”

“One guy had five bags,” Rivers said, adding police collected those for evidence. “The guy that came in the lobby was Jewish. He really was concerned.”

A look back:Centennial: Vero Beach becomes destination for fans traveling the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

From 2018:Anti-Semitic, racially charged signs investigated in Port St. Lucie

So far, police have not reviewed potential camera footage from homes, which might show the person or persons who distributed the pamphlets, he said.

He noted distributing flyers is not illegal, given the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. He said there's not much police can do unless the person distributing trespassed on private property, and that would have to be documented, such as by video.

Flowers said he's waiting for findings before determining what, if anything, can be done.

Rabbi Michael Birnholz

Not the first time

Rabbi Michael Birnholz has been with Temple Beth Shalom on 43rd Avenue in Vero Beach for 20 years and said Thursday’s incident was not the first in the area.

Both congregation members and non-Jewish people called Birnholz Thursday, “out of concern” after receiving the flyers, he said.

“We’ve been in contact with the Sheriff’s (Office),” said Birnholz. “If there’s a flyer that somebody has with a bag that has not been touched, they are looking for those for fingerprints.”

Earlier this year, roughly between February and March, Birnholz said similar flyers were distributed in the area.

“I think people are worried; I think people are concerned,” he said, citing targeted violence and shootings at synagogues and churches, including Colleyville, Texas in 2021, Poway, California in 2019 and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018.

Deputies regularly monitor the Vero Beach temple on days with services, but Flowers said, in light of the pamphlets, they would increase their presence at the synagogue.

“We’ve already been taking a lot of precautions and we’ll continue to do that,” Birnholz said. “The whole goal of this is to bring fear (so we’ll) bring as much light and love in the world as we can (by) taking care of each other and making peace.”

Despite the instances reported Thursday and those earlier this year, Birnholz said he hasn’t seen any noticeable change or obvious uptick in anti-Semitism-related incidents in the Vero Beach area.

“You don’t see it,” he said. “You don’t know it’s there unless something happens.”

Past incidents

Indian River County does have a history of antisemitic and hate speech-related incidents.

Between 2020 and so far in 2022, in Vero Beach, there have been at least seven instances of white supremacist propaganda distribution and at least one reported anti-Semitic-related instance of propaganda distribution as reported by the Anti-Defamation League on its online "Hate, Extremism, Antisemitism, Terrorism (H.E.A.T.) Map."

The Anti-Defamation League shows reported incidents of hate, extremism, anti-Semitism and terrorism (HEAT) on its HEAT Map, and a spokesperson said June 24, 2022 incidents could be reported at https://www.adl.org/report-incident

Founded in 1913, the nonprofit bills itself as the “leading anti-hate organization in the world” with a stated mission to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” according to its website.

The organization also profiles known groups and figures such as the entity whose pamphlets were distributed Thursday, the Goyim Defense League

It describes the group as a small network of virulently anti-Semitic provocateurs formed in California mostly active in its state of origin, Florida and Colorado.

“The group, and many others tend to post a lot of these types of flyers online, so it's, unfortunately, very widespread,” said Lonny Wilk, a regional director with ADL Florida. “Since 1979 … we do an audit of anti-semitic incidents, including harassment, vandalism, assaults in the state of Florida, where 2021 … was an all-time high.”

He said there was a 50-percent increase of incidents reported in 2021 from 2020, with a “significant increase” from 2019.

There have been a number of "flyering" incidents throughout the state just in the last month, he said.

“Instead of making the world a better place, we have to be spending a lot of time, energy and resources in just making sure we can come worship in peace,” Birnholz said. “Religion is about bringing people together and making the world a better place, not about a spewing hate.”

Corey Arwood is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow Corey on Twitter @coreyarwood, or reach him by phone at 772-978-2246.