Rabbi Alan Lachtman began Shabbat services at Temple Beth David in Temple City on Dec. 8 by having the children's choir sing "Light One Candle," a song by Peter, Paul and Mary. The song had symbolic meanings, both positive and destructive, for the congregation. Twenty years ago, on Dec. 6, 1980, the fifth day of Chanukah, two neo-Nazis broke into the synagogue, poured gasoline on the pulpit, and set the synagogue on fire. The sanctuary was gutted, the cabinet containing the Torah scrolls was singed and two Torah scrolls -- one of which had been rescued from the Holocaust from a temple that had burned years ago -- were damaged.
Four rows of pews, a complete set of prayer books and seven of the temple's 12 stained-glass windows depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel were destroyed. The blaze caused $100,000 in damage to the building and $30,000 damage to the contents. Yet the synagogue survived, due to its determination and to an outpouring of support from the community. The fire evoked outrage throughout the San Gabriel Valley among community residents of all faiths. The interfaith Temple City Ministerial Association offered the use of their buildings to the Jewish community. And on the Friday night following the fire, more then 300 members of the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in West Los Angeles traveled to Temple Beth David to express their support and to contribute to the rebuilding funds. Among the participants were Leonard Nimoy, Ed Asner, Jack Carter and director Arthur Hiller.
The synagogue was completely rebuilt, the Torah scrolls were repaired, and the prayer books and other items destroyed in the fire were all replaced. The old stained-glass windows, which were blown out by the intensity of the fire, have been replaced by new ones that contain some of the glass from the old windows. The murals on the windows depict the Torah and Menorah encircled by flames shooting up on all sides of them.
Last Friday, the temple dedicated new Torah covers and thanked the community for two decades of support. Rabbi Alan Lachtman compared the fire to the biblical burning bush.
"The synagogue was burned but not eliminated," he told the congregation. "At Temple Beth David, we found out what could be truly mean and destructive in the actions of misguided people and how someone's match can destroy what generations tried to build. When we light the candles during Chanukah, we think of the lights as dispelling darkness and gloom as opposed to doing things that terrorize people."
Asked about the echoes of the Nazis' Kristallnacht in acts like arson, he said, "Yes, there's a parallel. The arson was not a spontaneous act, nor was Kristallnacht a spontaneous act. But the difference here is we were able to rebuild, while Kristallnacht was part of a systematized crescendo of anti-Semitism, racism, hatred and cruelty. Here, in our sleepy little town, people banded together when adversity happened. They had the opportunity to reach out to one another. That's what a community really means."
Lachtman went on to reflect on the implications of the experience of the fire. "I think about how goodness overcame negativity and the power of people to do evil," he said. "Out of the darkness came a sense of light. And the truth is that adversity made us stronger."
Lachtman recalled that after the fire, the children of the synagogue "had nightmares. They took their Chanukah menorahs out of their windows out of fear." Referring to the new generation at Temple Beth David, he said: "I think it's so important that those children who didn't experience this should realize that the community can overcome the horrible acts of a few and affirm the goodwill of the majority."
Irwin Frazin, a former president of the congregation who saw the results of the fire that day, recalled "the smell of burned, charred wood and fabric."
"You looked around and saw the destruction. And you felt disbelief that this was happening in America," he said.
Among the community speakers Friday night were the mayor of Temple City, Chuck Souder, who presented a proclamation from the Temple City community in support of the synagogue, and Dr. Ilena Blicker of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
David Lehrer, L.A.-based regional director of the ADL, had spoken at the rededication ceremony when Temple Beth David was rebuilt in 198l. "The arson at Temple Beth David," he said, "was certainly a catalyst in helping us focus on hate crimes and in the adoption of the first hate crime law in California, which ADL drafted."
One of the strangest and most hopeful consequences of the arson was alluded to by Lachtman in his sermon. There was someone not present Friday night who was inevitably on people's minds: Michael Canale, one of the two men who had committed the arson. Since coming out of prison in l983, Canale has repented and has committed his life to opposing the neo-Nazis he had once supported.
While in prison, Canale had been befriended by Jewish doctors, social workers and fellow prisoners. He realized he had been misled and mistaken. When he came out of prison, he sought to apologize to Lachtman and the congregation for what he had done. Through the efforts of Irv Rubin, head of the ultra-militant Jewish Defense League (JDL), who arranged a public meeting filmed by CBS-TV, Canale expressed his sorrow for what he had done. Commenting on Canale's atonement, Lachtman said, "So out of the darkness came a sense of light. Through the court system and people reaching out, Michael Canale's life was also changed. He came back after prison and visited us. He even played bingo with us.
"A reporter recently asked me, if Michael was here, what would you say to him? I said that I have talked to Michael on and off over the years. It's been long enough that I think the anger is gone for our congregants as well. And I think if they knew some of the changes that he's made, there would be a sort of acceptance." Lachtman pointed out Irv Rubin in the audience and praised the efforts he had made with Michael.
Later, in an interview, Rubin, who wore a red-white-and-blue American-flag tie and a dapper purple shirt, told The Journal: "Michael and I were bitter enemies. He tried to attack me from the witness stand during his trial for arson. He lunged off the stand and four bailiffs pinned him to the ground. It took me a long time to put aside my feelings about him. Because all I wanted to do was kill him at the time for firebombing the shul and for being a Nazi."
When Canale came out of jail, he sought out Rubin. Rubin had misgivings, but he discovered Canale was sincere. He sent him undercover into the Ayran Nations in Idaho to infiltrate the group. Canale also testified in the Allan Berg murder case in Denver in front of a federal jury. Since that time Canale has continued to help the FBI and law enforcement to unmask neo-Nazi organizations and has given valuable testimony against them. "I never thought a neo-Nazi could change to that degree. But he did," Rubin said. The JDL leader described Canale's public apology to Lachtman in l983. "You could see Canale sweating profusely," Rubin said. "The TV camera was glaring on him. It was actually a very touching, emotional moment. At first Lachtman thought that his apology was contrived because I was pressuring him. But it was a sincere apology."
Rubin posed the obvious question: "How does a rabbi forgive someone who burned down his sanctuary? God only knows. He's managed to do it. Rabbi Lachtman is a very tolerant guy."
Today Michael Canale is on disability. He spoke to The Journal by phone from his home. "I changed in prison," he said. "I had a Jewish trustee bringing me food in L.A. County Jail. At first I was afraid he was going to poison me. I started trusting him. I met other Jewish friends that I would eat with and play cards with. After meeting these Jewish guys, I saw a lot of stuff I was told about the Jewish people was wrong. I saw how the Nazis would lie and change the Bible around to make it sound their way. Like they were trying to say the Jewish people were the beasts of the field.
"I just couldn't hate anyone anymore," Canale explained. " I just couldn't. CBS filmed me with Rabbi Lachtman, a really nice man. He said to the news media, 'We can forgive but never forget.' I can understand."