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Arson Hits 3 Synagogues in Sacramento Area

June 19, 1999|MARK GLADSTONE and VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Arsonists attacked three synagogues early Friday, gutting a library and leaving leaflets at two of the houses of worship blaming Jews for the war in Kosovo.

The worst of the damage was at 150-year-old Congregation B'nai Israel, which calls itself the oldest synagogue in the West. The Reform synagogue's library housing tapes and other materials on Jewish history was blackened, its contents destroyed.

The early morning fires caused nearly $1 million in damage. A team of local and federal law enforcement agents said there were no immediate suspects.

"This is clearly the worst such attack in years," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League,

B'nai Israel, located in a leafy residential neighborhood a few miles south of California's Capitol, was hit first, at 3:24 a.m.

About 20 minutes later, arsonists broke into Congregation Beth Shalom, another Reform temple 10 miles away in suburban Carmichael, and set a small fire. Ten minutes later, another fire broke out at Knesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue two miles away and just outside the Sacramento city limits.

Cantor Martin London of Knesset Israel said fliers left at the synagogue purported to link Jews with the war in Kosovo through Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Catholic who converted to Episcopalianism. She only recently discovered her Jewish ancestry.

"We're just a nice, easy target . . . and that's been going on for 2,000 years," London said.

At Beth Shalom, teary-eyed congregants gathered Friday morning outside the temple, just below an inscription that read: "The Light of the Lord Is the Soul of Man."

They said the synagogue was spared serious fire damage by a sprinkler system that doused the flames but left the sanctuary waterlogged.

Over the last decade, Sacramento has been the site of several racially motivated incidents, including a firebombing outside B'nai Israel six years ago. Three years ago a predominantly black church was burned to the ground by arsonists.

"Our congregation . . . is devastated, shocked, numb, feeling anger. All those feelings," said Rabbi Brad Bloom of B'nai Israel. "At the same time we feel that . . . we're going to rebuild, we're going to renew."

Reports of the synagogue fires also stunned the pastor at Sacramento's only Serbian church.

"Our church and our people have nothing to do with this act of terror, this act of hate," said the Rev. Dobrivoje Milunovic of the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Assumption. "Our prayers and thoughts are with the members of the Jewish congregations whose temples have been burned."

U.S. Atty. Paul Seave, a member of Congregation B'nai Israel, was among a group of elected officials and law enforcement authorities who gathered at a news conference Friday afternoon. Seave described the three fires as "crimes against all Americans" and announced the revival of a hate crime task force in the Sacramento area. Gov. Gray Davis offered the services of all state law enforcement agencies.

Federal Agencies Join Investigation

Within hours of the attacks, the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were mobilized to join local police in the investigation. The ATF sent its National Response Team, a mobile investigative unit that is called for major incidents such as the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the World Trade Center in New York.

James Maddock, special agent in charge of the FBI's Sacramento office, said four people were questioned early Friday and released after investigators decided they were not involved in the fires. Maddock said it was too soon to say how many people were involved or what the motive was.

"What we do know is that the fires were set deliberately by individuals breaking in," said Sacramento County Sheriff's Lt. Jim Cooper.

As they combed through the crime scenes, investigators found anti-Semitic leaflets at Beth Shalom and Knesset Israel.

The front door of Knesset Israel, a modest building in a quiet, residential neighborhood, was charred in the attack. Investigators estimated damage there at $30,000.

Cantor London said the synagogue had recently held a fund-raiser that finally got the small congregation out of debt. "Now we're behind the eight ball again," he said.

At Beth Shalom, the fire caused $100,000 in damage.

"There's broken glass everywhere, and water and footprints and mud and dirt everywhere," said Jeff Levy, Beth Shalom's immediate past president. "The carpeting for the entire sanctuary is soaked . . . the American flag is knocked over and burned."

At B'nai Israel, the burned library had housed videotapes on Jewish history and culture as well as "Sesame Street" tapes in Hebrew. Authorities estimated the damage at more than $800,000, including vandalism in the sanctuary and some offices.

As word of the attack spread through the neighborhood, residents gathered behind yellow police tape.

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