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Alabama Jews reach out after church arsons

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Feb. 21 (JTA) — The Jewish community of Birmingham, Ala., is reaching out to churches that have been affected by this month’s rash of arsons in rural parts of the state. Ten churches burned in three separate sprees between Feb. 3 and Feb. 14. All of the churches have been Baptist, and six of them burned to the ground. Racial motives are being discounted, since half of the congregations were black and half were white. The late-night fires all started in the pulpit area. After the first six churches burned, south and west of Birmingham, the Birmingham Jewish Federation donated $1,000 from its reserve fund to help rebuild the churches. After the other arsons, that was raised to $2,000. Volunteers from the Birmingham Jewish Community Relations Committee have been paired with each of the churches to express concern and find out how the Jewish community could be of further assistance. The federation also plans to coordinate “personal helping opportunities” with groups like the Teen Tzedakah program. JCRC member Randy Mazer contacted New Harmony Holiness Church in Chilton County, and reported that the pastor’s wife said his was the only call thus far from outside the area. After speaking with Rev. Jim Parker of Ashby Baptist Church, Joel Rotenstreich of the Birmingham Jewish Federation said “They will be able to carry on, united with their congregants, neighbor churches that have offered space, and friends,” but what they need is money for rebuilding. Parker “asked me to express his profound thanks to the Jewish community for their concern, support, and prayers,” Rotenstreich said. “Let’s not let these people down.” Maury Shevin, chairman of the JCRC, said “An attack on a church or any other house of worship resonates with us as Jews in particular, given the attacks on our own religious institutions throughout our history.” Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews called the fires “an assault on all people of faith.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Atlanta office issued a statement from its regional director, Deborah Lauter, and its Alabama state chairman, Steven Brickman, urging a “vigorous” investigation and stating that the churches “have the heartfelt sympathy and support of the Jewish community.” The American Jewish Committee offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonists.

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