Bernie Lazar dreads answering his phone these days if it rings in the morning.
The president of Bnai Zion of Midwood fears it will be news of another break-in at the 75-year-old congregation, which has been targeted seven times in less than two months, most recently early Monday morning.
"It’s so heart-wrenching when I get these calls at 6 in the morning," says Lazar, a Bnai Zion worshiper for more than 50 years.
While the damage to the aging Orthodox synagogue building has been minimal, and only some cash has been stolen, the rash of burglaries has forced the congregation of only 75 mostly elderly members to invest thousands of dollars in security upgrades. They include an improved alarm system, iron bars for windows and new doors. The expenses could climb as high as $10,000.
Jews increasingly are a minority in the surrounding community of Old Mill Basin, where only two of the eight synagogues that once operated in a 10-block radius now remain.
Bnai Zion once boasted 700 members, but the rolls began to decline rapidly within the past two decades as Orthodox Jews were drawn to the more affluent areas of Midwood and Flatbush. The synagogue subsists largely on income from another property leased to the city’s Department of Education.
There are no signs that the break-ins were motivated by anti-Semitism. Burglars have ransacked the office looking for cash and broken into a computer room used by a daily senior citizens program operated by the Jewish Association of Services for the Aged.
The intruders once used a computer to view pornography, Lazar said. They also damaged wiring for the alarm system.
Lazar said when the office was ransacked, he and the office secretary returned to find themselves "knee-deep" in paper.
"It looked like after a hurricane," said the secretary, who asked that her name not be published. "They looked for money in every crevice they could find. It took three days to straighten up."
In one incident, some $1,500 collected for a trip was stolen. In another, $75 was taken. Cash is no longer kept overnight at the synagogue.
Each time the congregation repaired damage to a door or window used to gain access, thieves found another way to get in.
On a tour of the premises Tuesday morning, Lazar, a retired dry cleaner and a World War II veteran who still suffers from a leg wound sustained in combat, pointed out numerous changes to the building over the years motivated by security, including a barbed-wire fence and many windows now covered by brick.
"Everything is barred up like a prison," he said.
At a door leading to a ballroom, he noted a door "was ripped off the hinges, so we had it nailed up, and they did it again."
Lazar believes the intruders must have generated substantial noise during their break-ins, but said no neighbors have called the police. The most recent burglary took place at 2:50 a.m., he said. The alarm was activated, but the intruders had left by the time police arrived.
Calls by The Jewish Week to the Police Department seeking comment on the Bnai Zion situation were not returned.
State Sen. Carl Kruger, who represents the area, said he was looking into whether the congregation is eligible for federal homeland security funds distributed by Albany that would make it possible to install high-tech cameras.
"Night-vision cameras would catch these guys quickly," Kruger said. "They are predators who keep coming back."
Bnai Zion is one of numerous congregations in changing neighborhoods of the five boroughs that face the dual challenges of declining membership and the need for resources to deal with security and the natural decay of aging buildings.
David Pollock, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he planned to conduct a survey and needs assessment next year to determine how best to assist such synagogues.
Pollock recommended that leaders of such synagogues contact their local police precinct for a security assessment, a step already taken by Bnai Zion.
"Good security acts as a deterrent," he said.
Pollock said the perpetrators could face steeper prosecution under the state’s bias crime bill, even though no hate messages were involved.
"There is an enhanced penalty for destruction of religious property," the lawmaker said.
But Lazar said he fears that if the burglars are juveniles, they will get off with "a slap on the wrist."
"I would like to see them put away," he said. "Not because of the money, but for the heartache of getting a call at 6 in the morning and saying, ‘Oh no, not again.’"