Riverdale Fears The Fire Next Time


Calm returned to Riverdale two weeks after the FBI arrested four Islamic men for plotting to blow up two neighborhood shuls as part of a larger plot. There was no further danger, said Jewish leaders, there was never real danger, the FBI was in control all along. Half of Riverdale seemed to twitter like the birds in Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” — “all is quiet, all is quiet.”

And yet, outside kosher bakeries and in study halls during Shavuot’s midnight hours, one could hear echoes of Peter’s troubled grandfather: “Well, what would have happened if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”

The two targeted shuls were Riverdale Jewish Center (Orthodox) and Riverdale Temple (Reform). RJC’s Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt said, “What
I’m hearing from my people, and maybe it’s complacency, is that this was a random, crazy thing. The [suspects] were portrayed as bumblers.”

Despite that outward dismissal, Rabbi Rosenblatt nevertheless had his congregation, on the first Shabbat after the arrests, rise and “bentch geymal,” a rare blessing of thanksgiving said only when an individual is convinced that he has emerged from a life-threatening situation.
Emotion burst through wherever it had a chance. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which was not attacked, the congregation spontaneously gave a standing ovation to Officer Louis Rodriguez, the 50th Precinct’s synagogue liaison, when he dropped by on a Shabbat morning.

HIR’s Rabbi Avi Weiss sent a letter to Gov. David Patterson requesting a “blue-ribbon panel to investigate” the allegations that radical Islam “is being promulgated in prison through use of government funds.” There “is little doubt that there is a strong base of Islamic radicals, led by their clerics, who preach terror and death.”

At least two of the four suspects, from Newburgh, N.Y., were said to have converted to Islam in prison.
Rabbi Weiss told The Jewish Week, “When something like this happens, there are always people who just breathe a sigh of relief, but this is not a time to just stand on that relief. We’re making a terrible mistake if after this close call life goes on as usual.”

“People are scared,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov of the Riverdale Chabad. “On Shavuot we had hundreds of people, everybody was wondering about safety. This has gotten under the skin of the entire community.”

There was an interfaith celebration, with plenty of politicians, on the Friday after the capture. Even though the FBI saved the very synagogue where the gathering was taking place, scores of Jewish leaders were among those applauding Imam Talib Abdur Rashid when he scolded the FBI, saying, according to the Amsterdam News: “We are against being probed, against having our houses of worship surveilled, and against the use of our weak-minded for these set-up operations.” None of the Riverdale rabbis challenged him or walked out.

The problem wasn’t imported jihad, agreed the rabbis of the two targeted shuls. No, Rabbi Rosenblatt told the The New York Times, “We can’t dry up any kind of homegrown terror without first drying up poverty.”

The problem was “socio-economic,” Riverdale Temple’s Rabbi Judith Lewis told The Jewish Week. The antidote, apparently, was stimulus packages and social workers for future terrorists, but the $25,000 in Homeland Security money for each synagogue’s security system was welcome, too, just the same.
It was unclear why Riverdale Temple was even taking the money. Rabbi Lewis said, “I really don’t think that anyone feels that this was the result of some organized Islamic radicalism. Do we have general security concerns? Yes. Fear of some sort of Islamic attack? No. The anti-Semitism is coincidental, or incidental to it. It certainly looks like a case of people who have not had a lot of equal opportunity in their lives.”

There were those who disagreed. After all, the Bronx has no shortage of socio-economic troubles, and yet in the past decade there’s been almost no black or Hispanic crime in Riverdale, let alone terrorism, but there have been firebombs thrown by Islamic men at the Riverdale Press (owned at the time by Jews) after an editorial supporting Salman Rushdie; Molotov cocktails (that quickly died) thrown at the glass doors of the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale by several Palestinian men; and now, the arrests of May 20.

Who decided on RJC and the Temple? Andrew Wolf, editor and publisher of the Riverdale Review, a neighborhood newspaper, pointed out that the other intended target was Stewart Air National Guard Base just outside Newburgh. Why not a synagogue closer to Newburgh, too? “If they were looking for Jews,” said Wolf, there were many large and obvious Jewish communities in Rockland and Westchester counties. “How would a guy from Newburgh even find the Reform Temple? It’s so off the beaten path, you almost have to go out of your way to drive past it.”

One upstate newspaper, the Times Herald-Record, said federal officials originally planned to make the arrests at Stewart Air Base.

“I’m suspicious that these [Newburgh] guys were led to Riverdale so the arrests could be made within New York City boundaries,” said Wolf, so New York police “could participate in the arresting festivities; they wanted a piece of this. That’s fine for them. But what I’m afraid of, and what people here are afraid of,” said Wolf, “is Riverdale is suddenly being discussed on all these jihadi Web sites, where Riverdale has been raised to a stature it would never otherwise have, a symbol of Jewish life in America, as far as they know. The failure of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center only brought [other terrorists] back in 2001, to finish the job.” Who’ll come to finish this job?

Although some have dismissed the Newburgh Four as unrelated to global terrorism, the Daily News reported that after their arrest the Riverdale plot has indeed gone global, embraced by Islamic radicals, with jihadists “buzzing [on the Internet] about how to get it right next time.” According to monitors of these chat rooms, jihadists “seemed to be happy that there was a cell in New York plotting an attack against Jews,” and were “pretty disappointed the cell was discovered,” according to monitors at SITE Intelligence Group. One forum said, “the brothers in New York were deceived,” and FBI infiltration “is a real problem” needing “solutions.”

RJC’s Rabbi Rosenblatt told The Jewish Week that, yes, he has fears that shadow him, beyond a criminal’s poverty. “The fact that [the arrested black men] were Islamic but not Arab is significant. What really concerns me,” said the rabbi, “is a dangerous cross-pollination between two long-standing schools of anti-Semitism: [radical] Islam, and the segment of the black community that has been bashing Jews for 30 years. It’s a dangerous hybrid.”

However, he warned, “The message of Jew-as-victim is not our best move. We can be resolutely anti-terrorist without doing the victim thing. That doesn’t mean we have to line up to be shot. But we have to be more strategic.”

We can’t make “anti-Semitism the main issue,” said Rabbi Rosenblatt. “As true as that may be, we don’t have an audience for it anymore. The liberals are cutting us loose. The people in power will only give us lip service.

“That’s why,” said Rabbi Rosenblatt, “we have to focus on the fact that what happened in Riverdale is the country’s problem. These guys were going to shoot down an American plane, not just our shul. The Jewish community, because of our special vulnerability, is simply a litmus test, a bellwether, of the state of destructive rage out there. Israel, America and Jews are, for the terrorist community, one creature, one hatred.

“We’re in this together.”