For two rabbis at marathon carnage, blasts evoked prior catastrophes; Jewish community vigilant as investigation unfolds.
Rabbi Mayer Zarchi recognized the loud blasts he heard, and the smell of burnt flesh in the air, when he stepped out of a café in downtown Boston Monday afternoon.
He had been near a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv several years ago. “It was a very similar sound.”
A Lubavitcher who two years ago founded Chabad of Boston (BostonChabad.org), the first “formal Jewish infrastructure” in the tony Beacon Hill neighborhood, “three short blocks” from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Rabbi Zarchi had been manning a small booth around the corner from the finish line since early morning. He’d been handing out Jewish calendars and brochures, helping men put on tefillin, and had walked away a few minutes for a cup of coffee.
Then the pair of bombs detonated, 12 seconds and a short distance apart. The terrorist attack killed at least three, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded more than 140, some critically.
The rabbi, a Crown Heights native who came to Boston four years ago, went back immediately to his Chabad House, which is located in a “very big,” one-story Brownstone apartment.
First he called his family, and friends who texted from around the world after reports of the terror attack made news, to assure them of his safety. Then he opened the space to anyone who needed a snack (he offered tea, and bottled water until he ran out of bottles), two phone lines (cell phone service in the area was cut off, as a security measure), and a chance to “sit down and breathe and feel secure.
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Everyone needed “a shoulder to cry on,” Rabbi Zarchi said in a phone interview.
“At least 100 people were here,” Jews and non-Jews, runners and their relatives and other shocked spectators, he said. Out-of-towners unfamiliar with the area, Bostonians who found that police lines made travel from the scene difficult, “they had nowhere to go.”
Rabbi Zarchi spent the next seven hours “reassuring people” at his Chabad House and visiting patients and their families at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is a volunteer hospital chaplain. “It was a battle-zone … a fortress,” full of police officers and Army personnel, he says. He went there again during the middle of the night and early Tuesday morning, to comfort patients who required surgery.
On Thursday, Rabbi Zarchi plans to recite the Gomel prayer of thanks, for delivery from a perilous situation, during the reading of the Torah. “Absolutely,” he says. “I was a block and a half away.”
Two other rabbis who were at the marathon – as runners – were far from the blasts when they happened.
Rabbi Benjamin David, 36, of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J. had completed the marathon and was back at his hotel when the twin explosions erupted. He was running with Rabbi Scott Weiner, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of New Rochelle in Westchester. The two friends are co-founders of the national organization The Running Rabbis, which encourages clergy—Jewish and not—and their congregants to run. They always run for a charity and their race in the Boston Marathon raised money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
“Getting out of the finish area took us at least a half hour,” Rabbi David explained Monday night.
“We went to the hotel, and I was about to put my hand on the door to go into the lobby when I heard a massive explosion. It was an extraordinary sound. You knew instantly that something was wrong.”
The rabbi knew what kind of wrong that was. He was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, blocks away from the World Trade Center at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“In my mind, I instantly compared it to when I was in New York on 9/11,” he said.
“People were running toward the scene and away from the scene,” Rabbi David said. “Police were scrambling. The hardest part is that no one knew what happened, so you don’t know what to do. We thought maybe the grandstand had collapsed, or a building. Other than using the word “surreal,” Rabbi David didn’t get into details about what he saw.
Luckily, David’s family did know what was happening with him. Like most other marathoners, he had a chip on his clothes that enabled the tracking of his progress via a secure website.
“I knew that he was finished with the race, and I texted him to see how it went and he texted back, ‘Turn on the news,’ ” said his father, Rabbi Jerome David of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. “I was shaken, even though I knew he was safe.”
President Barack Obama on Tuesday said there was as yet no information about who was responsible for the deadly blasts.
“This was a heinous and cowardly act, and given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,” he said at the White House.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited the similarity of the Boston attack to events in Israel in his remarks at a midtown celebration of Israel’s 65th birthday.
“Nobody yet knows how many people will die,” Bloomberg said. “Israelis understand probably as much as anybody on the face of the earth what it’s like to live under constant threat of attack and they understand just how important it is to not give in to the threats. We feel the same way here in New York City and that gives us a special bond …”
Boston Police Chief Edward Davis said at a press conference Monday night that no suspect was in custody, but police were talking to an individual about the crime. Media reports citing unnamed sources have said the person being questioned is a Saudi national who was apprehended at the scene by a civilian because he was acting suspiciously in the vicinity of the bombs, and that that person had been burned in the attack. Other reports said police searched a home in suburban Revere, Mass., in connection with the investigation. An unexploded device recovered by police is being studied for clues about its maker, CBS News said.
Paul Goldenberg of the Secure Community Network, which coordinates information and antiterrorism planning for Jewish organizations, told The Jewish Week Tuesday morning that little information is being shared by authorities.
“Information right now is fluid,” Goldenberg said on Tuesday morning. “Anything the media, or social media say or do can impact the investigation process, so the first 48 hours are very important.” He said it was likely whomever is responsible for the attack was waiting for the “dust to settle” before claiming responsibility.
Goldenberg said vigilance is warranted because, in the past, apprehended terror suspects have been found to include Jewish sites as secondary targets.
“A substantial number of attacks have been thwarted in the past decade in which there were indications that [the culprits] were looking at government infrastructure but found they were hardened targets. As a secondary [choice] they said let me hit a Jewish facility.” In 2009, he noted, a man who opened fire on a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., was found to have researched Jewish targets, according to authorities.
He urged anyone who observes suspicious activity to immediately alert local authorities to let them judge if it merits investigation.
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said that he knew of one Jewish school -- he declined to identify it -- that scaled back an Israeli Independence Day celebration out of respect to the Boston victims, but otherwise Jewish life was continuing as normal, with heightened alertness and communication with police.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer. Adam Dickter is assistant managing editor.
Melissa Jacobs of the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia and Alan Zeitlin of N.Y. Blueprint contributed reporting.