David Rosen walked out of his house on Strathmore Avenue, on his way to synagogue with his children Saturday morning, and came face-to-face with a swastika spray-painted in black on a white Aerostar van parked across the street.
Neighborhood children had gathered around his neighbor's vehicle and were staring at the offensive symbols, which included a crude drawing of male genitals and an expletive.
"This is a tranquil block, and it was a tranquil day," said Rosen, referring to last week's Sabbath, the day on which four other Jewish families awoke to find similar graffiti painted on their white or gray vans in Northwest Baltimore.
Rosen said he at first dismissed the vandalism as teenage pranks, but after hearing of the other incidents, he's not so sure. Either way, he said, it's unnerving.
"What comes next?" the property manager asked. "If they don't get their kicks with this, what's the next step? Violence?"
Baltimore police are investigating the incidents, three of which occurred along two adjacent blocks on Strathmore and the others on nearby Clarinth Road and farther south on Labyrinth Road.
The streets are in neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by Jewish families, and all five vehicles targeted belonged to Jews; one was owned by the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore.
The attacks occurred late Friday into early Saturday, according to police reports. Four white vans and one gray van were damaged, one was "keyed," and offensive symbols or remarks were spray-painted on the sides and backs of the others.
The van parked on Clarinth had four swastikas and the word "Hitler" with a smiley face painted on the side. Another on Strathmore had swastikas, an expletive and the letters "IH8U" on the side.
It is possible that the vandals were out looking for white vans to ensure that their paintings could be large and visible. But the vehicles were parked in front of houses displaying a mezuza, a decorative case containing Scripture on the outside of the door to mark a traditional Jewish household.
A spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department said that no arrests have been made but that the investigation is being conducted by the intelligence unit.
The incidents have not yet been classified as a hate crime, which carries enhanced penalties but requires that the act is directed toward a specific organization, group or population and has to be committed with the intent to cause stress or harm.
Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said detectives are still collecting information to determine whether these incidents fit the hate-crime criteria. "There's a good chance that this will be classified as a hate crime," he said. "It's pretty evident what it is and who was targeted."
Arthur Abramson, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said Wednesday that he has pressed the highest levels of the city police command staff to label these incidents hate crimes.
"When you see swastikas, when you see the words 'Hitler,' it's a hate crime," he said. "This is not kids playing around. They are inflaming passions and displaying hate. … If in fact this ends up being committed by a neo-Nazi, I will be a lot more concerned than if this was kids from the neighborhood. But even then it does not negate the severity of the incident."
Elana Grayman didn't realize her family's 1999 Ford van had been vandalized until shortly before midnight Saturday, after the Sabbath had ended. She looked out of her house on Labyrinth Road and saw the word "Hitler" and a swastika painted on the side of the van.
"I'm not nervous at all," said Grayman, who lives about three-quarters of a mile from Strathmore, south of Cross Country Boulevard. "We've had tires slashed on this block. I've had people fighting in my front yard. We haven't had any hate incidents, but I think this was probably kids more than anything."
The woman whose family owns one of the vandalized vehicles on Strathmore, the one Rosen spotted on his way to synagogue, didn't want her name used but said she no longer felt scared. Her son noted that someone egged a car next door recently.
By Wednesday, the graffiti had been painted over in white, the outlines barely visible. "At first I was scared," the woman said. "But I'm hoping it was just kids."