RUTHERFORD, N.J. (RNS) An attack early Wednesday (Jan. 11) on a New Jersey synagogue—the fourth such incident in a month—is being investigated as an attempted murder and a bias crime, leading to increased concern and security measures from Jewish leaders and law enforcement officials.
Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said Congregation Beth El in Rutherford was hit by several Molotov cocktails and other explosive devices before dawn Wednesday, leading to a fire in the second-floor bedroom of Rabbi Nosson Schuman.
Schuman suffered second-degree burns to his left hand; his family escaped safely.
Though Molinelli said there was no evidence yet linking Wednesday’s firebombing to three prior incidents in Paramus, Maywood and Hackensack, Molinelli did not rule out that the four events were connected.
“The manner in which this heinous crime has been committed has brought our office to really raise consciousness on this,” the prosecutor said. “This is certainly a hate crime, this is certainly a bias crime, this is aggravated arson. But most importantly, we are now looking on this as an attempted homicide.”
Several synagogue leaders said they would re-examine security in the wake of the attacks, including meeting with law enforcement and elected officials to address security issues at Jewish institutions.
Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, N.J., said the community will not be intimidated.
“We are not afraid,” he said. “There are people who have disturbed ideas about Jews and Judaism, but we don’t think this is something that is widespread.
“There’s a concern whenever people are attacked for their faith—it’s so against what we believe in as Americans. I hope everyone is upset about this,” he said.
In Wednesday’s attack, authorities said, several arsonists tossed Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices through the second-floor window of Schuman’s sleeping quarters in the large Victorian style home that houses Congregation Beth El on the ground floor.
Schuman said one of the Molotov cocktails landed on his bed, where he and his wife, Pessy, were sleeping. When their blanket was engulfed in flames, Pessy Schuman ran to the couple’s five children while the rabbi extinguished flames, some of which had spread to the carpet and a window.
When it was over, nine people in the dwelling—including the Schumans, their five children, ages 5 to 18, and the rabbi’s parents—all escaped safely.
“I’m watching him in awe,” Pessy Schuman said. “I’m grateful he’s my husband. And I’m thankful to God.”
The rabbi said he believed the attack on Congregation Beth El was connected to the others in the past month. “They wanted to kill a Jewish leader,” Schuman said. “This was well-planned.”
On Jan. 3, a suspicious fire was set at Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus. Authorities said an accelerant was used to start the fire in the rear of the building.
In December, anti-Semitic graffiti was spray-painted at the Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood and Temple Beth El in Hackensack—which are about a mile apart.
Police believed the graffiti incidents were linked, but Molinelli, the prosecutor, said earlier this week that they didn’t appear to be connected to the Paramus fire.
The FBI has been monitoring all the attacks since last month, according to Michael B. Ward, the special agent in charge of the Newark field office. The agency sent a civil rights agent and a bomb technician to the scene in Rutherford yesterday, he said.
Many Jewish leaders say their synagogues are already armed with security systems, special glass, indoor-outdoor cameras and lighting to thwart unwanted visitors. A growing number of temples have received state homeland security grants for security upgrades to their facilities since 9/11.
“You can’t hermetically seal the building, but we’re trying to do whatever we can,” said June Aranoff, executive director of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.
(Bob Considine writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Monsy Alvarado, Marlene Naanes, Deon J. Hampton and Deena Yellin of the Bergen Record contributed to this story.)