Gene Lesserson rushed to his synagogue in Hauppauge, L.I., at 7:30 Sunday morning after learning that an arsonist had torched the building during the night, destroying a ground floor office.
“It’s a sickening feeling to see our little shul damaged by an arson fire,” he said later. “I walked in there and had the feeling that my own house was destroyed. You could still smell the smoke from even outside the building. It was everywhere — in the carpets and the talleisim. … Everything is going to have to be cleaned.”
Rabbi Laurence Bazer, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Chai, said that until an arrest is made, there is no way of knowing whether the attack was inspired by the shooting spree at a Los Angeles-area Jewish community center less than a week earlier. In that incident, a professed racist, Buford Furrow, was arrested in the shooting of five people, including three young children.
Lesserson, a past president of the synagogue, said the 2:55 a.m. fire was the first serious anti-Semitic attack he had experienced in his 32 years in the community. The Suffolk County Police Bias Crime Unit classified the attack as a bias crime and Lesserson said federal agents were at the synagogue Sunday night for a community meeting attended by about 250 people.
Police said although an accelerant was used to fuel the fire, the Hauppauge Fire Department, about a mile away, responded within minutes after the synagogue’s fire alarm was activated. Firefighters contained the blaze to the central office. A police spokesman said the arsonist broke a window of the office — located in the rear of the building — poured in the accelerant and then lit it.
Rabbi Bazer said he expected a larger than usual number of congregants for Sabbath services this weekend and that he planned to speak about the outpouring of community support the congregation has received — and the need to move on.
“Beth Chai means house of life,” he said. “And we will continue to serve the needs of the community at simchas and in times of need and prayers of service to God.”
The president of the 160-family congregation, Barry Cohen, said that as news of the arson attack spread throughout the community, many non-Jews went to the synagogue to express their support. He said there was no damage to the sanctuary, which is directly above the office, and that the fire was extinguished so quickly there was no need to remove the Torahs or prayerbooks.