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Obituaries

Rabbi Eugene Markovitz, 82; Tolerance Inspired TV Movie

October 04, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Rabbi Eugene Markovitz, the subject of a television movie about his benevolent handling of the spray-painting of anti-Semitic graffiti on his home and temple during a Halloween "Mischief Night" in 1988, has died. He was 82.

Markovitz, who retired last year after 52 years as rabbi of the Clifton Jewish Center, died Sept. 26 of pneumonia in Clifton, N.J.

Actor Hal Linden played Markovitz in the 1994 CBS "Schoolbreak Special" titled "The Writing on the Wall."

Although the television film about hate crimes was based on an actual incident in Clifton, the setting was moved to Los Angeles, with several scenes filmed at Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood, where writer and co-producer Carol Starr Schneider was a member.

The program condensed the characters of the four real-life culprits into three boys and concluded with Linden as Markovitz taking the youngsters to the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. Linden also takes the boys to see "Schindler's List," which Steven Spielberg had not yet filmed when the crime took place.

The Jewish Exponent rated the educational film "compelling" and "accomplished," and Jewish Week praised Linden for his "sensitive portrayal" of the rabbi.

In the 1988 incident, which attracted national media attention, four youths struck four sites in Clifton -- the garage of Markovitz's home, the Clifton Jewish Center, a kosher meat market and the car of an elderly Jew -- as a Halloween prank.

Using shaving cream and blue paint, they scrawled swastikas, stars of David and such phrases as "I hate Jews," "Hitler should have killed you all" and "Go back to your own country."

The rampage occurred near the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938, pogrom in which Nazi supporters attacked more than 7,000 Jewish stores and burned 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria, marking the start of the Holocaust.

Caught quickly, the New Jersey youths, far from being neo-Nazis, were all 13 and 14 and the middle-class sons of a police officer, a dentist, a teacher and a banker.

Superior Court Judge Frank Donato, a non-Jew deeply upset by the racist vandalism, was ready to send the boys to juvenile prison for two years. But first he consulted Markovitz, who had worked to promote interfaith understanding since moving to the then predominantly Catholic Clifton in 1949.

Markovitz served as chaplain to Clifton police and firefighters for 50 years and started an annual "brotherhood meeting" to plan inter-religious programs.

He also served on local commissions that mediated race riots through the 1960s.

"He was totally accepted by non-Jews; he was like a Mr. Switzerland," said a longtime member of Markovitz's temple at the rabbi's death.

Markovitz, contrary to the views of the owner of the vandalized car and other Jews in the area, recommended community service -- specifically education about Judaism to enlighten the boys about what they had done.

"One must never give up on young people," he told Time magazine in 1990. "In Judaism, it's literally a crime to do so."

So Donato sentenced the boys to 25 hours of tutelage under Markovitz and an additional 30 hours of helping around his synagogue and their community.

The youths squirmed and rolled their eyes when Markovitz told them to put on yarmulkes, the head coverings worn by Jewish men and boys that the four youths had formerly belittled as "funny looking beanies."

But through the sessions, the boys listened and learned -- not only about Judaism but about its commonality with Christianity, the Holocaust, their own multiethnic country and even their own family histories, which included immigration from eastern Europe.

One boy learned from the rabbi that his own gentile grandfather had risked his life to hide Jews beneath the floorboards of his home in northern Holland during World War II -- a legacy his family had never discussed.

Markovitz, who overcame heart surgery and the death of his son during the instruction, took the boys to Holocaust museums.

He also showed them the chilling documentary "Night and Fog," about concentration camps, to demonstrate the awful power in symbols such as the swastika.

"They don't have to love Jews," the rabbi told Time in 1990, "but they've learned to respect them."

Markovitz's solution had positive effects.

The youths stayed out of trouble, and one became a lawyer and another a Clifton police officer.

One told the film's screenwriter that the rabbi had "saved his life" by moving him away from gang life.

Markovitz was ideally suited for the task. He had moved from his native Romania to Brooklyn as a teenager in 1940 after his rabbi father feared for the family's safety during the Holocaust.

Markovitz earned a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in theology from Yeshiva University but also got a master's in American history, a subject he later taught.

About 500 people attended services Monday for the popular rabbi, and his coffin was carried by five firefighters and three police officers.

Markovitz is survived by four daughters, two sisters and nine grandchildren.

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