Jewish volunteers scrub pro-Palestinian graffiti from the sidewalk outside of Effy's Café.
Jewish volunteers scrub pro-Palestinian graffiti from the sidewalk outside of Effy's Café.Jackie Hajdenberg

(New York Jewish Week) — The red paint was still wet when Ben Zara, the manager of Effy’s Café on the Upper West Side, arrived to work around 7 a.m. Sunday morning and saw the color dripping down the restaurant’s facade. She said it looked like blood.

“New York City is so crazy,” Zara told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the following morning. “But then it was my first time seeing right in front of my face an attack.”

Along with the red paint, a spray-painted message in front of the storefront restaurant on 96th Street greeted anyone who passed by: It said, in all-caps, “Form line here to support genocide.” Another message, painted in green on the sidewalk, read, “Free Gaza.”

The graffiti, which police are investigating as a hate crime, conscripted Effy’s into a growing, dismal club of New York City kosher restaurants that have been vandalized, attacked or otherwise targeted in the months since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7. Another set of spray painted graffiti was found on Sunday about 10 blocks uptown reading, “Israel bombs kids,” “Free Palestine,” “Israelism is terrorism” and “Israel is ethnic cleansing.”

For Jewish patrons of the dairy restaurant, the defacing of Effy’s touched off an increasingly familiar routine, in which expressions of online outrage translated to brigades of volunteers who came to support the restaurant in person.

Strangely, Zara said, the graffiti went mostly unremarked on Sunday, the restaurant’s busiest day, something Zara attributed to shock but could not otherwise explain.

But by that night, social media activists began paying attention: Photos of the attack spread across platforms and appeared on Jewish community sites and local publications, from the Facebook group Upper West Side Shtetl to the West Side Rag, a local blog.

By the following morning, a grassroots effort to clean the place up had begun.

“I came here with a brush and people joined me,” said Elisha Fine, a Harlem resident who led the clean-up efforts Monday morning, pressure washing and scrubbing the paint with baking soda and vinegar and other paint-stripping chemicals.

Author Melanie Notkin, another neighborhood resident, heard about the graffiti on Twitter. She bought supplies for the cleanup effort on Monday after passing by the site on her morning run and being asked by the volunteer crew if she could lend a hand.

“It’s moments like this,” she said. “We’re not going to take it lying down.”

For about four hours Fine and about five others pressure-washed and scrubbed the sidewalk, one of them wearing an Israeli flag hoodie. A string of passersby expressed their disappointment at the vandalism, while others dropped off supplies such as baking soda and brushes. The volunteers would stop spraying as pedestrians made their way across the sidewalk, occasionally helping with strollers or wheelchairs, while others avoided the cleanup entirely by walking on the street. Red water ran down the avenue.

“This is the next step of what the antisemites are doing,” Fine said. Referring to activists who tore down posters of Israeli hostages, he added, “First they start with the posters, then they move to the businesses. When are they coming to us? That’s why we’re here.”

For some of those who showed up on Monday morning, it’s hardly their first brush with activism following Oct. 7. Notkin has written and posted prolifically about supporting Israel. Fine counts himself among a few dozen people who have taken on the task of hanging hostage posters and stickers around the city. He said he has personally made, posted, or distributed about 10,000 of them since Oct. 7.

In addition to the cleanup efforts, Effy’s Café also saw an unusual amount of business for a Monday, Ben Zara said.

“Those people inside, most of them — those are my first time seeing their faces,” she said. “Even buying a small cup of coffee this morning, I even got customers ordering stuff you do not need to deliver, we just want to show our support to the business.”

The patrons included several local Jewish politicians. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the Jewish congressman who represents the area, visited in the afternoon. In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Nadler called the vandalism “a cowardly act of anti-semitism that cannot, and will not, be tolerated in our community.”

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Micah Lasher, who is running to represent the Upper West Side in Albany, visited together “to make clear that New York will never be a place where this is tolerated, condoned, or chalked up to reasonable political discourse,” Lasher tweeted.

Shlomo “Effy” Alkoby, the owner of Effy’s, moved to the United States from Israel when he was 17. He said he sad but not totally surprised that his restaurant was attacked.

“I love America. And it breaks my heart to see these people do that; they just don’t want to look at the bigger picture,” Alkoby said. “It’s just pure stupidity.”

Zara, who is not Jewish but has worked at Effy’s for nearly 10 years, said she could feel the support pour in on Monday. Customers left well wishes and flowers for the staff, and one customer even volunteered to bus tables when Zara was the only employee working in the morning.

“I’m Asian. I’m Filipina,” Zara said. “I have never felt this love and support like before. I got my back supported by all the Jewish community.”