Synagogue Fires Forge Unity In Calif.

Synagogue Fires Forge Unity In Calif.

In the wake of the worst attack on synagogues in the United States in at least two decades, federal investigators are feverishly tracking leads in last week’s coordinated firebombings of three of the five temples in Sacramento, Calif.
Meanwhile, an unprecedented outpouring of support continues to stream into the California state capital’s Jewish community from local citizens, national politicians and horrified American Jewish organizations, all vowing to help rebuild the severely damaged buildings torched in a pre-dawn raid last Friday by still unknown persons.
In an emotional show of unity on Monday, 4,500 people packed the city’s Community Center Theater for a powerful 2 1/2-hour rally against hate featuring spiritual hymns and forceful speeches denouncing the attacks.
Joining together on stage were 300 area religious leaders from many faiths dressed in their ceremonial garb, as well as ethnic community leaders wearing native attire.
California’s first Hispanic lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, told the standing-room-only crowd: “Tonight we remember and we say never again. Not here. Not in our backyard.”
“It was the most heartwarming response that I’ve ever witnessed to an anti-Semitic outrage,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the rally’s keynote speaker, told The Jewish Week on Tuesday.
“Looking out at several thousand people brought together in a magnificent kaleidoscope of people coming together to reject hate brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
California’s state Assembly unanimously passed a resolution Monday denouncing the arsons and calling for help in rebuilding the synagogues, which in the three blazes suffered about $1 million in damages. The next day, state and federal officials posted a $25,000 reward and promised low-interest loans to rebuild the synagogues.
California Gov. Gray Davis inspected the most severely damaged synagogue, B’nai Israel, with U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Davis called the fires “an act of violence against every American.”
Cuomo said the three congregations will qualify for federal loan repayment guarantees that will allow them to get construction loans at below-normal interest rates. HUD also will make available experts and an unspecified amount of money to help Sacramento start programs designed to build understanding between different faiths and ethnic groups.
“There is zero tolerance for this kind of disgrace,” Cuomo said.
The Sacramento Bee newspaper published an ad paid for by Jewish and non-Jewish groups proclaiming the Hebrew word chai, or “life,” in large letters, in addition to the phrase “Sacramento — united we stand together.” Readers in droves have been responding to the request to post it in their windows and stores as a show of support.
That display was reminiscent of Billings, Mont., when its homeowners and shopkeepers placed pictures of menorahs in their windows in response to anti-Semitic acts in their community in 1993.
On the national level, Vice President Al Gore in a written statement called the attacks cowardly. “They targeted the Jewish community of Sacramento and hurt all citizens in California and across this nation in the process,” he said.
The three fires were set within a 30-minute period. The 150-year-old Reform synagogue B’nai Israel suffered some $800,000 in damages, including the destruction of a 5,000-volume library that held rare copies of the Mishnah and Talmud. The ark was saved with all its contents, including a 200-year-old Torah scroll saved from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia.
The other two synagogues, Reform Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael and the Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue in northeast Sacramento, suffered damages estimated at about $150,000. No one was hurt.
Fliers were found at the scene of two fires blaming Jews for instigating and profiting from the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
No arrests have been made, but FBI officials say they are confident of finding the perpetrators. FBI Special Agent Jim Maddock said the coalition of 100 local, state and federal investigators have recovered “significant” evidence that is now being analyzed by experts from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Investigators said that because of the timing and spacing of the fires, one person could not have set all three.
The FBI warned Monday that the anti-Semitic fliers, which claimed to be the work of Serbian nationalists, may be misleading and the public should not jump to conclusions about the authors. Known neo-Nazi activists from around the Sacramento area were being rounded up for questioning, including the World Church of the Creator, a known hate group.
In a letter obtained by The Jewish Week, World Church leader Matt Hale said he does not condone or advocate the fires, but added the church will not condemn those who committed these acts, for “these acts are a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of Jewish atrocities that have occurred for centuries against non-Jews.”
Matt Friedman, incoming rabbi for Congregation Beth Shalom, said the tragedy is compounded because the father of Kenesset Israel Rabbi Brad Bloom died Saturday after hearing of the fire.
Rabbi Friedman said that longtime Beth Shalom Rabbi Joseph Melamed was in his final two weeks before retirement.
Meanwhile, American Jewish organizations this week responded swiftly to the attacks. The American Jewish Committee donated $30,000 to help rebuild the three temples. The ADL announced it will help Temple B’nai Israel replace its destroyed collection of Holocaust videos and books.
The North American Boards of Rabbis is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonists.
In New York, police and FBI officials said no special security precautions were being taken on behalf of the city’s Jewish community in response to the blazes.
In California, several community leaders are calling for the creation of a Sacramento “museum of tolerance” to help steer youngsters clear of prejudice.
“The way to stop it [hate crimes] is with education,” Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr. said at a rally Sunday across the street from the charred remains of Congregation B’nai Israel’s library. “If we can issue bonds to build ballparks, we should build a museum of tolerance in the city.”
Liebe Geft, director of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, said that coincidentally, two Sacramento school superintendents were getting tolerance training in Los Angeles last week at the time of the fires.
An ADL spokeswoman called the violence the worst single attack on synagogues since the organization began keeping an audit of anti-Semitic attacks 20 years ago.
Sacramento officials said that in 1993 there was an attempt to torch B’nai Israel with Molotov cocktails, and similar attacks were made at the time against African-American and Japanese community centers. A neo-Nazi youth was arrested and charged with the crimes.
Jewish leaders noted a positive change in the response by law enforcement this week compared to 1993, when they felt abandoned.
“[In 1993] law-enforcement agencies did not take our complaints seriously, and tried to convince us that the attempts were not racial activity,” said Mark Karl, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Sacramento. “This time we felt the support of the law enforcement and the community at large behind us.”
Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Friedman said there was water damage throughout his sanctuary, and the loss of prayerbooks and Books of Torah. The fire damaged two rows of seating.
“Unfortunately this is not the first time Jewish communities have faced arson, but each time we have remained steadfast and endured” he said.
Indeed, there is a long history of bomb and arson attacks against synagogues in America, particularly in the deep South during the civil rights struggle.
On March 16, 1958 a bomb rocked Temple Beth El in Miami. On the same day an explosion ripped off the front of Nashville’s Jewish Community Center, followed by an attack on the Jewish Center in Jacksonville, Fla. Seven months later, Atlanta’s historic The Temple was blasted with dynamite.
Perhaps the deadliest incident in recent memory occurred in the New York area in December 1965, when nine children and three adults were killed in a fire set by an 18-year-old at the Jewish Community Center in Yonkers.
“Because Americans have short historical memories, it is important to remember the violent past and to see the bombings in California’s capital city as part of a painful and continuing chapter in our nation’s history,” said Rabbi James Rudin, AJCommittee’s interreligious director.
At Shabbat services at the Sacramento Community Center Theater last week, B’nai Israel librarian Poshi Mikalson held up a small glass container of ashes and said: “Rabbi brought me these ashes from our library. I promise you these ashes will rise again.”

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