A Pakistani immigrant’s quick action to prevent the torching of a Brooklyn synagogue may be symptomatic of what some see as the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Syed Ali, 35, was working at an Amoco station in Sheepshead Bay when he realized that a man who had filled a canister with gas was about to set fire to the Young Israel of Kings Bay across the street, according to authorities.
Ali called the police, who arrested Saed Jakup, 22, a former city employee, who allegedly was trying to attack Ali for refusing to sell him more gas.
Jakup, a Bosnian immigrant, was charged with arson and criminal mischief, and the incident has been labeled a bias crime. Family members reportedly described Jakup as distraught after he lost his job with the Department of Environmental Protection.
Jewish leaders who have fostered close ties with Pakistani immigrants were not surprised by Ali’s act. Relations between the groups, who live in close proximity in many sections of Brooklyn, are "excellent," said Bob Kaplan, director of intergroup relations and Community Concerns at the Jewish Community Relations Council.
"I work very closely with a number of organizations, such as the Council of Pakistani Organizations," he said, noting that there is even a Jewish-Pakistani basketball team in Flatbush, and that JCRC was working with Pakistani-American leaders to jointly honor Ali for his action.
Tending to a long line of waiting cars at the station Friday Ali, who emigrated eight years ago from Karachi to Brighton Beach, said he did not consider himself a hero.
"It’s part of my upbringing: You save yourself, you save your neighbor," Ali said as he gassed up a minivan. "A synagogue is a sacred place. I saw this happening right in front of me and had to do something."
Nevertheless, elected officials and Jewish organizations last week joined the Young Israel’s rabbi and president to hail Ali for preventing the synagogue’s destruction.
"His quick thinking averted what could have been a terrible tragedy," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who called Ali "a true hero."
The Ocean Avenue synagogue, which was built in the 1930s and had recently undergone exterior renovation, suffered only minor discoloration to its front door from the gasoline and high-pressure hoses used by firefighters to remove it, said the congregation’s president, Allen Popper. He said the shul would invest in a high-tech security system to prevent further incidents.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Centerís Task Force Against Hate also commended Ali. City Councilman Michael Nelson, whose district includes Sheepshead Bay, presented Ali with an honorable citation.
Popper said Ali had "answered the Bible’s question of ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’"
The incident was reminiscent of one in Riverdale in 2000, when a firebomb was tossed at Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel at a particularly violent time in the Middle East. The attack caused minor damage.
A Palestinian man was convicted last month of that attack and faces strict penalties under the state’s new bias crime laws. A second man was convicted of a lesser charge.
Police have told Jewish organizations that the Brooklyn case appears to be an isolated incident.
"According to police investigators, the accused made statements that led them to conclude that this is a hate crime," said David Pollock, associate director of the JCRC. "The investigation is ongoing, but they have not yet tied it to anyone else, and [the suspect’s] national background would make that less likely."
The attempted arson was one of three incidents last week in Brooklyn that are being investigated as bias crimes. There were also two cases of vandalism.
One case, in the Kensington section, involved graffiti and the letters JEWS spray-painted on the home of an interfaith couple whose house was the only one on their block without Christmas decorations.
In another, a man returned to his East Flatbush apartment after a vacation to find it ransacked, with swastikas on the walls and the words "Kill Jews."
Bias incidents typically rise in the weeks surrounding the holiday season, according to experts.
Pollock noted that although Ali’s role in preventing the arson was a simple one, notifying the police of suspicious activity is not always a given.
"People knew information about 9-11 and we wished they had come forward," he said. "That’s why the police now have a hotline, (888) NYC-SAFE."