After firebomb attack on N.J. synagogue, rabbi embraced by Rutherford neighbors.
Just days after extinguishing flames in his bedroom from a firebomb attack, Rutherford, N.J., Rabbi Nosson Schuman has begun talking about turning this hate crime into an event that unites the entire community and brings together Jews of all denominations.
“We suffered 10 minutes of extreme hate and at least four days of great love and solidarity,” the rabbi said, noting that there was an interfaith event on Saturday night. “We’re now going to try to do something else to promote understanding and unity in the community.”
At the same time, Rabbi Schuman said his Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth El, is receiving around-the-clock police protection as plans are made to install new lighting and security cameras to deter future anti-Semitic attacks.
“These people just want to inflict terror,” he said of those who hurled the firebombs at his home on the second floor of the synagogue at 4:30 a.m. Jan. 11.
It was just the latest and most violent of a series of anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues in Bergen County, and a wave of recent swastika incidents in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Long Island.
Police are investigating whether a Jewish man arrested for making threatening calls to relatives and painting swastikas in Manhattan may be tied to the Brooklyn incidents (see story on page 18), and Jewish leaders are being cautious about sounding alarms about a wave of anti-Semitism.
But Phyllis Goldstein, author of “A Convenient Hatred,” a study of anti-Semitism published last month by the Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, said tense political and financial times such as these often lead to spikes in hatred against Jews.
“It’s hard to know the particulars of a community, and what causes tension, from a distance,” said Goldstein. “But whenever people feel uneasy about their situation and aren’t comfortable for one reason or another, it’s pretty easy to look for someone else to blame. It tends to come to the fore in unsettled times … The perception someone else is to blame for my problems is easier to digest than to sort of face up to whatever reality is causing my problem.”
On Dec. 10 swastikas and the words “Jews did 9/11” were spray-painted on Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, a Reconstructionist congregation in Bergen County. Less than two weeks later, Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Hackensack, was similarly attacked. And on Jan. 3, arsonists struck in the rear of Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun, an Orthodox congregation. An accelerant was used to start the fire, which apparently extinguished itself after scorching the building.
“Every place they attacked was some place that didn’t have a surveillance system,” Rabbi Schuman pointed out. “I assume if you have one — unless they start becoming braver and taking more risks — they are going to stay away.”
He said Tuesday that more than $2,000 had been raised towards the purchase and installation of security cameras and extra lighting with motion sensors.
A website, donatebethel.org, has been set up for those wishing to make a contribution. Rabbi Schuman said he expects the work to cost about $5,000.
He said it is important to get the work done as quickly as possible because the Rutherford Police Department has been providing 24-hour protection since the attack and “I’m not sure how long it will last.”
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli, who is treating the case as an attempted murder, said police have begun extra around-the-clock patrols at all houses of worship in the county. And Gov. Chris Christie issued a statement last week saying he “will not stand” for additional attacks on houses of worship.
“I urge everyone in and outside of the Jewish community to be vigilant and wary but not intimidated by these events and to stand in unison against violent hatred like this.”
Synagogues took Christie’s message to heart last Shabbat. At Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, a new buzzer system was installed. And at Ahavat Torah in Englewood, a phalanx of security guards stood sentry.
Etzion Neuer, the acting regional director of the New Jersey branch of the Anti-Defamation League, said there was “a profound sense of unease this past Shabbat in Bergen County. It’s largely anecdotal, but in conversations I’ve had with individuals and community leaders, there is a strong sense of unease and real anxiety over what’s happened lately.”
Law enforcement officials had met last week at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey with representatives of more than 80 Jewish institutions to discuss security measures for synagogues and Jewish day schools.
“This is a new type of training for us,” said Ruth Gafni, principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. “We have lived in such a peaceful way so far and we've been so blessed to feel so safe and secure. This attack has changed the playing field.”
The Community Security Service, a nonprofit organization that provides training and services that aim to help tighten security at Jewish facilities, reported receiving calls from more than a dozen Jewish institutions in the last week. Joshua Glice, the director of synagogue and school operations for the service, told JTA that he had conducted risk assessment studies this week for rabbis at their homes.
An FBI agent visited Rabbi Schuman Tuesday, but so far no arrests have been made. The FBI is treating this as a federal bias crime. The ADL has offered a $7,500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators.
Rabbi Schuman said he believes at least two people were responsible for the attack on his home/synagogue, because five incendiary devices were used.
“I don’t think one person could have carried all that stuff by himself,” he said. “It would be stupid to go back and make two trips to carry it all.”
He said he believes it was the last firebomb that crashed through his window after the others landed on the roof.
“My wife and I saw the blast outside and the fire coming in and onto the quilt,” he said. “It’s live fire — oil spitting out that is on fire and scattering everywhere. It was coming through like a dragon’s breath.
“The fire jumped on top of the blanket and we both folded over the blanket and suffocated the flames together. And when I went to put out the flames by the window, she ran and got the kids out. … They heard me screaming, ‘Fire, get out, we’ve been attacked.’ I couldn’t scream it in a more fearful way.”
While his wife, Pessy, 36, got their five children, the rabbi’s father and her mother out of the house and called 911, Rabbi Schuman said he used a blanket and a fire extinguisher he kept at the entrance to his apartment to try to douse flames by the window and on the carpet.
“There is a ledge right outside the window and there were flames there,” he said. “That’s how I knew it was a hate crime — because as soon as I went over to the window, I saw other fires out there from other Molotov cocktails. I knew it was a continuation of the hate crimes that were going on. … I opened the window and started shooting the fire extinguisher out the window. I couldn’t reach all of the fires because one of the fires was behind an outcropping. I don’t know if it went out on its own or if the fire department put it out.”
Rabbi Schuman said it couldn’t have been easy hurling the firebomb through his bedroom window.
“I have a feeling they must have used some kind of slingshot or something that propelled it up. I have an old house that has quarter-inch glass on that window — very thick — and to break it you had to have a very hard throw, be pretty far away and extremely accurate.”
He said the family ran out of the house even though he wasn’t certain the arsonists had stopped hurling firebombs.
“But I had a feeling they fled as soon as they saw me at the window. I can’t explain how I knew this, but it was intuitive. … The attack was a success for them, and I’m sure they would have loved it had there been more tragedy and death.”
Regarding his plans for the future, Rabbi Schuman said he would like “to do something either community-wide or maybe in the high school” that would continue to bring the community together.
“I’m going to talk to somebody in charge of community activities in Rutherford to see what would be the best medium for this kind of activity, because we want to continue the momentum.”
The event last Saturday night was attended by about 250 people.
Rabbi Schuman, 44, who was born in Forest Hills, Queens, and has been the spiritual leader of the 18-family congregation for the last two and a half years, said the attack left him and his wife shaken.
The attacks in New Jersey came at the same time that Nassau County police were reporting six swastika paintings since Christmas in Sea Cliff along the county’s North Shore. Det. Lt. Gary Shapiro, the department’s hate crimes coordinator, said the targets were a park, a school and three homes, from Dec. 27 through Dec. 30, and on Jan. 8 vandals drew a swastika on a homeowner’s garage door.
Although a couple of the victims are Jewish, Shapiro said most are not and that police are trying to find out what triggered the attacks.
“We’re working on a number of leads,” he said, adding that anyone with information should call the police at 800-244-TIPS.
In addition, Shapiro said police are still looking for those who scrawled swastikas into a car parked Jan. 8 at the Babylonian Jewish Center in Great Neck.
JTA contributed to this report.
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