HARRISBURG, Pa., Oct. 10 (JTA) – Mel Woolf returned from his daily walk on the morning of YomKippur with deeply troubling news.
Temple Ohev Sholom, the synagogue to which the Harrisburg native and his family have belonged foryears, had been torched.
A fire, later labeled an arson, had been set in the early hours of the morning on the holiest day of theJewish calendar. Jewish community members are speculating that it was probably a hate crime.
"Coming on Yom Kippur, how can you think it was anything else?" asked one member.
Federal, state and local investigators joined forces to search for those responsible, but said it would bepremature to declare the fire a hate crime.
Authorities did note that the blaze was set during escalating tension between Israelis and Palestinians in theMiddle East – widely reported in the local and national media.
No major incidents of anti-Semitic violence was reported over Yom Kippur, although in New York, policepatrols around synagogues were stepped up and the local Jewish community relations council and Anti-DefamationLeague issued advisories urging vigilance and special security precautions during Yom Kippur.
In other incidents across the country:
o A bomb threat was called in to the Arizona State University Hillel;
o A burned Israeli flag was left on the steps of Congregational Emanu-El – B’ne Jeshurun of Milwaukeesometime early Monday morning.
The Harrisburg fire destroyed new construction under way at the city’s first synagogue and one of theoldest Reform congregations in the country.
Also largely decimated was the Mary Sachs Educational Extension. The center provided space for officesand classrooms for the temple’s Hebrew school.
As the news spread throughout the congregation and each of the state capital’s other synagogues, thenormally somber mood of the Day of Atonement grew grimmer.
"Mel really took this to heart," said Susan Shermer, Woolf’s wife. "He feels violated."
Services were transferred by midmorning to Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Camp Hill, acongregation with which Ohev Sholom has developed ecumenical educational programs.
Church officials removed as many Christian symbols as they could to make the temple members feelcomfortable, said Shermer.
"We tried to be as welcoming as we could. They would have done the same thing for us," the Rev. J.Stewart Hardy, the church’s pastor, told the Patriot-News, Harrisburg’s daily newspaper.
Harrisburg police deferred comment to the office of Mayor Stephen Reed. A staff person in his office saidcity officials were involved in meetings related to the fire.
Burglary was also listed as a possible motive. According to a witness in the surrounding residentialneighborhood, two men were seen running from the building.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Ohev Sholom, who arrived at the synagogue in the middle of the night to rescuethe Torah scrolls, preferred to focus on the positive.
"Thankfully, the sanctuary was not extensively damaged," he said. "And there was no loss of life."
Beginning Friday evening, in celebration of the festival of Sukkot, services are scheduled to resume in thesanctuary. Although it was located right near the construction site that triggered the blaze, the sukkah also was notharmed.
Meanwhile, healing has already taken place, according to Weiner.
"At first, the reaction was shock, sadness and even anger," he said. "But by the middle of the day," onYom Kippur, "we had a feeling of community and unity.
People were encouraged by the support we’ve received, from both the Jewish and non-Jewish community."
And, noted Weiner, mortars and bricks can be replaced. "But no one can take from us the essence of whata congregation is.”