By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

Jewish and Christian clergy in Sandy Springs recently released a letter expressing concern about the “negativity” over zoning applications by two private schools, Holy Spirit Preparatory School and The Epstein School.

The application by Holy Spirit, a Catholic school, to build a lighted football complex won City Council approval Aug. 19, and a vandal or vandals spray-painted a swastika near The Epstein School that night on a Bridgewood Valley Road speed bump. A lawn sign in support of the Epstein application also was vandalized.

A second swastika was found Aug. 30 painted on a Bridgewood Valley stop sign.

The Planning Commission met Aug. 21 and recommended deferral of the application by Epstein, affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

The school hopes to expand its building space by 49 percent and its acreage by 38 percent so it can grow from 650 to 850 students.

The letter signed by 10 members of the Sandy Springs Interfaith Clergy Association is a plea for the community to work together, said Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah on Mount Vernon Highway.

The zoning debate has become “negative and antagonistic,” he said, and racist vandalism is “something none of us wanted to see.”

In addition to Heller, the letter was signed by Rabbis Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj of Congregation Or Hadash, Rabbis Ron Segal and Brad Levenberg of Temple Sinai, the Rev. Ron Gilreath of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, the Rev. John Porter of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Erin Cooper, the Rev. Danny Gulden and the Rev. Philip Price of Sandy Springs Christian Church.

Tentative progress has been made since Aug. 19 in that neighbors on both sides of the Epstein debate have removed signs from their yards.

Sandy Springs police Lt. Steve Rose said Sept. 2 that police have few leads in the swastika cases but do not think anyone is in danger. Often after a couple of weeks “somebody will start talking about it,” he said.

The Mountaire Springs and Rivershore neighborhood associations, which oppose the school’s expansion, have joined with police in offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the swastikas.

Georgia does not have a hate-crime law, so the maximum charge would be damage to property, said Bill Nigut, the Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I feel bad for the children at Epstein School,” he said. “I think this incident just reminds the children who go there that there are people who don’t wish the Jewish community well.”

Heller said he hopes people will represent their viewpoints in a “way which is mutually respectful” and maintains “the values which I think everyone in Sandy Springs would like to see put forward.”

“We’re obviously not always going to agree on everything,” he said, “but at least we have lines of communication open.”