Police have labeled as an arson-related hate crime a fire ignited early Friday at the rear door of a yet-to-open Persian synagogue in Tarzana. Investigators found anti-Semitic graffiti at the scene, as well as a burnt door and trash.
The attack came two days before the grand opening of Beith David Education Center's new building. Congregants are scheduled to carry Torahs from the shul's original location nearby at Reseda Boulevard to the new home in the 18600 block of Clark Street on Sunday, July 9.
"I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses," said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue's vice president, who hopes those responsible will turn themselves in.
The blaze was started at 3 a.m. using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved to directly beneath the oak front door, according to Sgt. Jim Setzer of the LAPD's West Valley Division. The flames were quickly extinguished by the synagogue's fire-suppression system, which runs along the building's eaves. Damage was limited to the door.
Hakimi said the initial damage estimate is $4,000, enough to classify the crime as a felony.
Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a retaining wall of the building as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim wash their hands and feet.
A joint House of Worship Task Force that includes detectives from the LAPD's criminal conspiracy section, L.A. Fire Department investigators, as well as FBI and ATF officials were first on the scene after a congregant living nearby called police at 6:30 a.m. Officials are still investigating and currently have no suspects.
Because construction has not been completed at Beith David, the building is presently without a security camera system. However, LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist.
Following an inquiry by the mayor's office and City Councilman Dennis Zine, the LAPD reported that patrols of the area will be stepped up in advance of the new shul's Sunday ceremony.
"I'm horrified to see this, especially because this is my community. It's a very sad day," said Fortuna Ippoliti, area director of neighborhood and community services for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
"It's probably some misguided kids," Tarzana Neighborhood Council President Leonard Shaffer said as he looked over the scene. "It's really ridiculous."
The attack comes three years after a string of arsons in a nearby area targeted The Iranian Synagogue, Da'at Torah Educational Center, as well as the Conservative shul Valley Beth Shalom. There have also been attacks on the nearby First Presbyterian Church of Encino and the Baha'i Faith Community Center. Farshid Tehrani, an Iranian Jewish immigrant allegedly suffering from depression, was arrested in connection with those crimes in May 2003.
Beith David Education Center's journey to the new location has been a long one. After a years-long battle over parking that has kept the congregation in its Reseda Boulevard location, Hakimi says nothing will stop the congregation from moving to Clark Street.
The synagogue purchased the former post-office building for $1 million in 2002, but L.A. City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle. The Tarzana Property Owners Association claimed the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a more Conservative style of worship and often drove to services. Synagogue representatives rejected the argument, saying that its congregants were Orthodox, regularly walk to the shul on Shabbat and do not need the parking.
Following City Council approval of the Clark Street site in 2004, the Beith David congregation has devoted the last year and a half and has spent a $1.2 million on renovation of the building in advance of its grand opening. Beith David has limited the advertising of the Sunday event to Radio Iran 670 AM, a local Iranian newspaper and word-of-mouth among congregants.
Like Shaffer, Beith David Vice President Hakimi believes the targeting of his synagogue was likely a hate-crime by youths and not a targeted attack related to the City Council battle or animosity toward Persians.
"This is an isolated situation, and it doesn't reflect on the community that we live in. That is my hope," Hakimi said. "But it's a very sad incident."