Anti-jewish Violence, Arson Has U.S. Communities Worried

Police investigating isolated acts of anti-Jewish violence and arson across the country are urging the public not to jump to any conclusions, but local Jewish communities suspect the incidents are linked to the violence in the Middle East.

In one of the latest attacks, a fire seriously damaged Temple Beth El in Syracuse last Friday. More than 60 federal agents are looking into the incident, which investigators have labeled an arson.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, police are investigating three separate attacks that took place in the largely Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park on the night of Oct. 12.

The incidents, in addition to earlier incidents at synagogues in Harrisburg, Pa., New York and Toronto, among others, are heightening concern among Jews.

Fears are greatest among residents who live near the places where attacks have already occurred, said the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“If the incident happened in your town, in your shul, in your community, it’s a high-level concern. If it happened 500 miles away, less so,” said Abraham Foxman.

In Syracuse, the main office of the temple was gutted and the second floor was heavily damaged. The main sanctuary and the chapel were not directly affected.

The Torah scrolls and other sacred books are all intact, said Rabbi Irvin Beigel of Temple Beth El. He added that while the smoke-damaged Torah mantles will most likely have to be replaced, it is not yet known whether the parchment will need repairs.

Beigel and law enforcement officials urged the community not to jump to any conclusions on why the fire was set.

“I would discourage people from speculating,” Beigel said. “Until we have the facts from the appropriate law enforcement, we must all be very cautious about jumping to conclusions.”

The heavy law enforcement response, however, testified to concerns that it was a hate crime and Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi immediately ordered police patrols to all area synagogues.

“The fire is suspicious in origin and in the climate of the world today we must proceed with caution,” Bernardi said.

The Syracuse Jewish Federation may take additional security precautions.

That’s what everyone needs to do, said Foxman. People “need to be alert that there’s a security problem” and not treat suspicious incidents and threats cavalierly, he said.

In Chicago, three Palestinian American teen-agers were arrested in connection with two of the attacks, which are being investigated as hate crimes.

Also, police are searching for a gunman who shot at a rabbi in his car. According to police, the rabbi was pulling away from the curb when someone in a dark sport-utility vehicle pulled up to his car and fired four to five shots inside, shattering the car’s front and rear windows, but missing the rabbi. He was not injured.

The incident is not being classified as a hate crime because no words were spoken before the attacker fired the shots, according to police.

Two separate attacks took place in Chicago only a few minutes earlier, just a few blocks away. Chicago police spokesman Patrick Camden said two 17-year-olds and a 14-year-old — all of whom identified themselves as Palestinians — are in custody in connection with these attacks.

The three could be charged with committing a hate crime and aggravated assault against two people.

In the first of the night’s incidents, police say a man was walking home from synagogue when a white van pulled up and the van’s occupants asked him, “Hey, are you a Jew?”

When the man, clad in an Orthodox-style hat and beard, failed to answer, one of the attackers fired at him with marbles from a slingshot, missing him.

In the next attack, a Jewish man was walking home when he saw a van stopped in the street with the engine running. Somebody aimed a slingshot at him before speeding away.

Police said no one was injured in any of the attacks.

Police increased safety precautions in Chicago during the Jewish holiday season and in light of escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis overseas.

“We’re aware of the situation in the Middle East, and we’ve intensified patrols throughout the city,” Camden said.

“The violence of the Middle East must not be allowed to spill over into the streets of Chicago,” said Michael Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

“The Jewish community greatly appreciates the seriousness of the police department in apprehending the alleged perpetrators and in providing extra security at this time.”

Camden said Chicago police are concentrating on protecting especially vulnerable facilities, including synagogues and mosques.

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(Judith S. Huober of The Jewish Observer of Central New York, Cindy Sher of the JUF News in Chicago and JTA staff writer Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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