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Fire at Orthodox Oakland Shul Investigated As Possible Arson

May 7, 2002
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Jewish Bulletin of Northern California Firefighters responded to a 911 call at 11:54 a.m. on Saturday — roughly two-and-a-half hours after the conclusion of Shabbat services — and extinguished three small fires burning around the perimeter of the building.

Samples of a flammable liquid discovered on the scene were removed for analysis. Even 11 hours after the blaze, the area still smelled like a gas station.

Worshippers, police, investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and media personnel mingled near the charred back patio.

Fire investigators have deemed the fire “suspicious,” and may rule later this week if it was arson.

FBI agents interviewed synagogue officials on Monday, and are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

“People in the world have hate and anger, and there are proper ways to express anger and there are ways that are completely unacceptable to the community,” said Rabbi Judah Dardik, the congregation’s spiritual leader.

“I’m frustrated, I’m angry and I just want to do something,” he said. “People decided to take out their hatred on us, and I want to get them.”

Dardik characterized the physical damage to the building as minor, though no estimate of the cost of the damage has been reached. The rabbi added that tapes from the synagogue’s security camera have been handed over to the Oakland Police Department.

The damage was confined largely to a 15-foot-wide area behind the sanctuary littered with children’s toys. Charred Tonka trucks and tricycles stood in front of a melted recycling bin and large panels of sheet metal pried back by fire fighters, who were searching for hidden flames within the building’s walls.

“Whoever poured that gasoline walked past or tripped over children’s toys,” said Beth Jacob congregant Dashiell Ferguson, shaking his head. “This shul was basically kept alive by the generations that survived the Holocaust and settled in Oakland.”

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Central Pacific region of the Anti-Defamation League, said a $5,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the people responsible for the fire.

The Bay Area is experiencing a sharp increase in the number and severity of anti-Semitic incidents — a pattern his fellow ADL directors are not reporting elsewhere, Bernstein said.

A number of gasoline canisters were discovered on the roof of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in March, an incident also categorized as a possible arson attempt and investigated as a hate crime by both the FBI and ATF.

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