Philadelphia synagogue devastated by arson


PHILADELPHIA, May 31 (JTA) — Sifting through the ash-covered remains that were once treasured religious objects, administrators of Beit Harambam Congregation say they are determined to rebuild after their synagogue was scarred by arson over the weekend.

“We are going to grow stronger from this,” said Eli Gabay, president of the 300-member congregation in Northeast Philadelphia. “We have to if we are going to survive as a community.”

For Gabay and others, the experience felt like a “bad dream.” When congregants arrived for morning prayers last Shabbat, they came upon officers from Philadelphia’s police and fire departments standing in front of a burned-out shell of a building.

Half of the synagogue’s roof had caved in. All the windows were broken. The four Torah scrolls salvaged by firemen were likely damaged beyond repair by smoke and water. All of the prayer books were ruined.

“We are just beginning to understand the level of decimation,” said Gabay two days after the fire. “We are literally digging into the rubble in order to locate anything that can be salvaged.”

The hardest part of the experience so far, Gabay said, was explaining to his two young children that “this was done by someone who wanted our synagogue to not exist.”

Police said the motive for the arson remains unclear and authorities are examining other arsons for a pattern. They are also investigating whether the fire is related to a burglary that took place at the synagogue in January.

Gabay, however, sees a clear motive for the crime.

“To us, it is unequivocal that this is a hate crime,” he said.

“Even if it started as a spree of vandalism or simple burglary, when an individual comes into a synagogue, walks through the main sanctuary” and sets a pile of prayer books on fire, “to us that is direct anti-Semitism, and it’s a crime of hate.”

The Sephardic congregation had occupied the converted house for more than 10 years, he said. Members are primarily immigrants from Israel and Russia, along with some longtime Northeast Philadelphia residents, said Gabay.

Sgt. William Ansel of the Philadelphia Police Department said the arsonist broke into the synagogue through a rear window, piled up the prayer books and lit them with a match.

A mechanical clock stuck at 4:27 a.m. — and still hanging on the wall of the synagogue — helped police estimate that the fire started around 4:20 a.m. The arsonist apparently dropped two charity boxes taken from the synagogue after tripping on a chicken-wire fence in a nearby yard, the officer added.

The congregation is considering renting a storefront to hold services for the time being.

Beit Harambam member Devora Neuman, a 73-year-old Holocaust survivor, said she had hoped she would never see another synagogue burned down.

“I was really shocked. I cannot get over it. I felt like I was back in Poland or Germany,” she said, recalling the smoke in the sky in 1939, after Nazis entered her Polish village and destroyed the shul. —Jewish Exponent

(The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia have set up a fund to assist the congregation. Donations should be earmarked for the Beit Harambam Rebuilding Fund and mailed to the Jewish Federation, c/o Chris Nuneviller, 2100 Arch St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.)

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