Authorities say it was vandalism and not anti-Semitism that led three teens to allegedly set fire to the permanent walls of a sukkah in the rear of a Washington Heights synagogue, but the congregation’s president would like to hear an apology from the youths.
“I don’t know how to read the motivation of these boys,” said Erich Erlbach of Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun, at 85-93 Bennett Ave., which is also known as the Breuer Shul. “People were concerned. Many feel it’s a bias crime, others don’t.”
Noting that the father of one of the teens reportedly apologized for the actions of his son, Erlbach said: “You would think the boys would do it as well.”
Erlbach said the fire was started shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday while about 200 congregants were in the synagogue for services.
Jacob Lowenthal, the congregation’s treasurer, said he was the first to smell smoke and, together with another congregant, Shlomo Feldheim, rushed outside to find the sukkah burning.
“They had started the fire in a garbage can and were taking flaming paper out of the can” and using it to ignite the sukkah, Lowenthal said.
“In less than five minutes flames were climbing 10 to 20 feet into the air,” he said. “It went up very quickly. It was shocking to see it.”
He said Feldheim nabbed three teens seen torching the sukkah but was forced to let them go to call the Fire Department.
“People in the shul saw the flames and removed the 18 Torahs and all the silver from the ark and put them in a room far removed from the flames,” said Lowenthal. “The Fire Department came and quickly put out the fire.”
While this was happening, the congregation continued services. Rabbi Zecharia Gelley even delivered a sermon after firemen verified that the fire was out. The building was not evacuated.
Lowenthal said that after the Fire Department arrived, Feldheim walked up the block and saw three teens standing on the sidewalk that he believed were the ones he had collared earlier. He grabbed the three again and held them for police.
Police identified them as Jose Ortega, 18, who lives across the street from the synagogue; Christopher Nunez, 19, who lives a block away; and a 15-year-old whose name was withheld because of his age. All three were charged with arson.
Lowenthal said it is believed the teens entered the rear of the synagogue by breaking a metal door in the 10-foot fence that rings the property.
“The fear of what this fire could have done to the building if this had happened two hours later when we weren’t there is very frightening,” said Lowenthal, who was still trying to figure the amount of the damage.
Due to the quick response, damage was largely confined to the sukkah, which was destroyed, and to a wall of the synagogue.
“A layer of bricks came off the building [because of the heat],” said Lowenthal. “You can actually see the exposed wood of the interior wall. The fire got closer than I’d like.”
Erlbach said the congregation is comprised primarily of Holocaust survivors and their children. He said there has never been any trouble like this in the past.
“We live in a quiet, peaceful community and we have a good relationship with our neighbors,” he said. “We work together with our mostly Hispanic neighbors on many projects and hope to continue to do so. I don’t blame the community. I think it was the aberrant behavior of some boys.”
Erlbach added that after the fire there were “expressions of concern from neighbors, other religious leaders and politicians. Everyone was concerned and helpful.”