Bahai News -- JTA - Huge team assigned to arson check as Jewish school attacked near L.A.

Huge team assigned to arson check as Jewish school attacked near L.A.

By Tom Tugend

LOS ANGELES, May 9 (JTA) — A huge team has been assigned to investigate a spate of attacks on houses of worship in a Los Angeles suburb, but so far they have few leads.

Some 150 police and fire department investigators, joined by federal agents, have been assigned to investigate the attacks in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley.

After arson attacks on two synagogues and two other houses of worship in recent weeks, a brick was thrown Thursday night through the window of the Deet Torah Educational Center.

That followed an attack early Wednesday morning, when someone — apparently a single perpetrator — hurled an incendiary device through a stained glass window of the sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom, one of the city’s leading Conservative congregations.

The device landed only 10 feet from the ark holding five Torah scrolls, and set fire to a carpet. The smoke triggered the automatic sprinklers, dousing the fire but causing some water damage.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the congregation’s spiritual leader, praised the quick work of the custodians.

“Without any instructions, these men and women, mainly Hispanic Catholics, rushed to the ark and carried the scrolls to safety,” he said.

Two days earlier, arson had struck the nearby Iranian Synagogue, a storefront congregation, singeing the walls.

A passerby called the fire department, which prevented further damage. No one could be reached at the synagogue.

The same day, a fire was set at the Baha’i Faith Community Center in the same neighborhood. Two weeks earlier, the First Presbyterian Church of Encino sustained the most damage in a similar attack.

Despite the 6:30 a.m. fire at Valley Beth Shalom, toddlers and their parents arrived for pre-school sessions a few hours later, and morning prayers proceeded normally.

Due to the sanctuary damage, however, Shabbat services were to be held at another location, said Jeffrey Levine, chairman of the synagogue’s board.

Assignment of the large police force, augmented by fire department investigators, FBI and other federal agents indicated how seriously officials were taking the incidents.

At a press conference outside Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn pledged that the city and federal government would “not tolerate these acts of terrorism and hatred.”

Authorities “will use all necessary resources to protect our houses of worship, and the perpetrators will be brought to justice,” he said.

Preliminary evidence seemed to indicate that a single individual had set all four fires, Fire Chief William Bamattre said.

Bamattre said there was no evidence that the fires might have been set in connection with the Jewish community’s observances of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day.

Police Chief Bill Bratton termed the investigation a top priority for his department, and asked the public to report any leads or suspicious activities around synagogues and churches.

Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district encompasses the institutions attacked, proposed that the city council post a $25,000 reward for the apprehension and conviction of the arsonist. The bill was passed unanimously.

Schulweis observed that he was touched by the concern shown by neighbors of the synagogue. A representative of the Wells Fargo bank branch across the street showed up early in the morning to present a $5,000 check to Levine.

There also have been a series of calls from the district attorney and other municipal and county officials.

“No peddler of hate can divide this community,” said Rabbi Allen Freehling, representing the L.A. County Human Relations Committee.

Gennady Shtern, Valley director of the Anti-Defamation League, was on the scene and said the ADL would make its full resources available to help law enforcement and Jewish institutions.

On Thursday evening, religious and civic leaders addressed a community-wide interfaith service at a Catholic church near Valley Beth Shalom.

The San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council has designated May 16-18 as a weekend of reconciliation for all area congregations, and announced a fund to repair damage from the attacks.

Donations and equipment should be sent to the Valley Interfaith Council, 10824 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Check should indicate “synagogue support fund” on the memo line.

©Copyright 2003, JTA Global News Service of the Jewish People

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