NEW YORK (Aug. 1)
A small Orthodox synagogue in Chattanooga, Tenn. was completely demolished Friday night by, what Jewish leaders there believe, was a bomb explosion. Steven Drysdale, executive director of the Chattanooga Jewish Welfare Federation, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone interview today that the explosion was “apparently premeditated” as wires were found leading from the synagogue to a motel 100 years away.
Commissioner of Police Gene Roberts told the JTA that local police and federal agents are conducting laboratory tests to ascertain the cause of the explosion. Asked if the explosion could have possibly been caused by a gas leak, he said it was very unlikely, but declined to confirm that a bomb caused it. There are currently no leads, he said.
The explosion, which was “heard all over town,” according to Drysdale, destroyed a converted house which was the home of the 55-family Beth Shalom Synagogue. Congregants who had gathered there for the Friday evening Shabat services reportedly left early because they were two people short of a minyan, Drysdale said. He added that normally they would still have been there at about 8:50 when the explosion took place. Although the building was leveled, the synagogue’s two Torahs and about 50 prayer books were reportedly undamaged, Drysdale said.
BOMBING SEEN AS ‘PROFESSIONAL JOB’
Charles Wittenstein, Southern counsel and civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith’s regional office in Atlanta, told the JTA he was on his way to Chattanooga today to meet with local officials about the explosion. He said he would discuss potential suspects and security precautions for the city’s other Jewish institutions. Wittenstein said he believed the bombing was “a professional job.” He added: “I would be inclined to think that . . . it was designed to injure and kill.”
According to Drysdale there has never been an anti-Semitic incident in Chattanooga, a city with 2250 Jews. However, he said there is a Ku Klux Klan movement in the area which, in the past two months, has “tried to be more active” by placing ads in newspapers and having spokesmen on radio shows.
Meanwhile, local police and federal agents are continuing their investigation. Roberts said federal agencies involved, because the bombing of a church or synagogue is a federal offense, are the F81 and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division of the U.S. Treasury Department. The amount of damage to the synagogue is still being estimated.