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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Link to Bomb Incident Stuns Jacksonville Community


When Harry Shapiro opened a kosher butcher shop in 1991, the Jewish community here was delighted.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, there would be no need to organize cooperatives to get kosher meat from Atlanta or Orlando.

But despite the enthusiasm over Kosher Kuts and despite its monopoly in this growing city, the business folded in less than two years.

At the time, Shapiro blamed lack of customer support and a nearly vacant shopping center. However, customers said Shapiro’s sometimes abrasive personality drove them away.

Now that Shapiro is charged with making a bomb threat and placing a bomb at a local Conservative synagogue, many people in this Jewish community of about 10,000 are wondering how an Orthodox Jew became mixed up in such an incident.

Besieged by American and Israeli media, Jewish leaders here have clammed up, offering only prepared statements that praise police for their work.

Few local Jews will talk about Shapiro, even though he is well-known in the community.

Shapiro, 31, is accused of phoning a bomb threat to 911 on Feb. 13, hours before former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed nearly 1,500 people at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.

He is scheduled to be arraigned March 13, and meanwhile remains jailed in isolation after attempting to commit suicide in prison last week.

Bail for Shapiro was set at $1 million.

Shapiro, a Jacksonville native who was a gas station attendant at the time of his arrest, can be a gentle and compassionate person, but has a short temper, said Jacksonville lawyer Michael Bossen, who grew up with the accused bomb- maker.

Shapiro is a “very extreme, very intense individual,” Bossen told The Florida Times-Union after Shapiro turned himself in to police Feb. 25, two days after children at a Bat Mitzvah luncheon found the bomb behind a wall of memorial plaques.

“He’d get caught up in little things,” said Bossen. “He’d had a very, very bad temper.”

That bad temper emerged when Shapiro was young, Bossen said. He attended public junior and senior high schools, but his discipline problems were so severe that his parents eventually enrolled him in an Alabama military school.

Later, Shapiro became more observant. He divided his time between Jacksonville and New York, studying three semesters at Yeshiva University in 1988 and 1989, and training in a kosher butcher shop in the Bronx. Bossen said he also spent time on a kibbutz in Israel.

Barry Zisser, an attorney for Shapiro who has known him all his life, had no comment about his client’s past or his political views. It appears that Shapiro was opposed to Peres’ peace process policy.

Shapiro returned to Jacksonville in 1991 to open his kosher butcher shop in Jacksonville’s Mandarin neighborhood, the heart of the city’s Jewish community. Although it was welcomed enthusiastically, customers gradually stopped coming.

Donna Braasch, who rented a home to Shapiro, said he seemed angry that Kosher Kuts went under.

“He was pretty ticked off at those people when he left town,” she said. “He felt unsupported.”

Another kosher butcher shop, unaffiliated with Shapiro, has since opened nearby.

Initially, the Jewish community feared the worst when a bomb threat was reported.

The caller to 911 identified himself as affiliated with “American friends of Islamic Jihad” and said two bombs had been placed at the synagogue where “that dog Peres” would speak. Bomb-sniffing dogs combed the building but found nothing. Peres delivered his speech uninterrupted. It is unclear whether Shapiro attended the event.

Nine days later, children found a wrapped device with what appeared to be a watch face. Police evacuated the synagogue and destroyed the device. They would not say whether the bomb could have detonated on its own.

After that discovery, but before Shapiro’s arrest, Jacksonville Jewish Center President Evan Yegelwel sent a letter to congregants assuring them that the synagogue was safe and security would be tightened. A local church offered to help patrol the synagogue.

Then, Shapiro turned himself in, apparently as police were closing in on him.

According to a police report, Shapiro had told his rabbi, Avraham Kelman of Etz Chaim synagogue, about his plans to disrupt Peres’ speech, which was sponsored by the Jacksonville Jewish Federation.

Kelman told police that he initially discounted Shapiro’s words.

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