City officials have vowed to aid a Persian congregation in Tarzana whose new synagogue was vandalized last Friday by an arson attack and anti-Semitic graffiti. Two days before the scheduled July 9 ceremonial moving of Beith David Education Center's Torahs to its new facility, congregation leaders discovered the newly renovated building had been the target of what police are labeling a hate crime.
Damage to the building was limited to a charred oak door, estimated to amount to about $4,000 in replacement costs, enough to classify the crime as a felony. Despite the incident, the Sunday dedication went ahead as planned, but with the supportive presence of city leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine.
During the dedication ceremony, Zine told more than 300 congregants of his plan to introduce a motion in the City Council for a $50,000 reward, the maximum allowed under the city's charter, to bring the arsonist to justice. He added that Villaraigosa had already guaranteed his signature.
The blaze was ignited on July 7 at 3 a.m., using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved directly beneath the shul's oak rear 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.
Anti-Semitic graffiti featuring a satanic symbol was found on a retaining wall of the building, as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim have their hands and feet washed.
"I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses," said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue's vice president. He added that the initial damage estimate is enough to classify the crime as a felony.
LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist. Beith David Education Center's journey to its new location has been a long one. The synagogue purchased a former post office building for $1 million in 2002, but the City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle.
The Tarzana Property Owners Association said the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a 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. After the City Council approved the new Clark Street site in 2004, Beith David spent $1.2 million on renovations.
On Sunday, Villaraigosa joined other public officials carrying 10 Sephardic Torahs from the center's original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The mayor took the half-mile Torah-laden walk in the intense heat of a midsummer Valley day in stride.
"What an honor it was, a kid from Boyle Heights, to carry the Torah all the way over here," the mayor said. He said he'd been told by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, "'If you do this 100 more times, you'll be a Jew.'"
At the Clark Street shul, Villaraigosa, Yaroslavsky, Councilmen Weiss and Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper and Amanda Susskind, the Anti-Defamation League's West Coast director, stood on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, threw candy and crowned the Sephardic Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.
"We are absolutely committed to finding whoever did this on Friday and bringing them to justice," Villaraigosa said. "A shul represents more than just a place of prayer or worship. It represents a place where faith binds a community." During a tour of the vandalism, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had used misspelling in the anti-Jewish graffiti.
"It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this," Villaraigosa told The Journal. -- Adam Wills, Associate Editor