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Jewish Journal

Fire Attacks Target Two Encino Shuls

by Tom Tugend

May 8, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Some 65 detectives from the anti-terrorist and other divisions of the Los Angeles Police Department have been assigned to investigate arson attacks on two synagogues and two other houses of worship in Encino.

Early Wednesday morning, apparently a single perpetrator hurled an incendiary device through a stained-glass window of the sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), 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 Iranian Synagogue, a storefront congregation on Ventura Boulevard, singeing the roof. A passerby called the fire department, which prevented further damage. No one could be reached at the synagogue.

The same day, an arson fire was set at the Baha'i Faith Community Center in the same neighborhood and, 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 VBS, toddlers and their parents arrived for preschool sessions a few hours later, and the morning prayer meeting proceeded normally.

However, due to the sanctuary damage, Shabbat services were to be held at another location, said Jeffrey Levine, the VBS board chairman.

Assignment of the large police force, augmented by fire department investigators, FBI and other federal agents, indicated the seriousness of the incidents in the eyes of city officials.

At a press conference outside VBS, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn pledged that the city and federal government will "not tolerate these acts of terrorism and hatred.... We will use all necessary resources to protect our houses of worship and the perpetrators will be brought to justice."

L.A. Fire Department Chief William Bamattre said that preliminary evidence seemed to indicate that a single individual set all four fires.

Asked if there was any sign that the synagogue fires might have been set in connection with the Jewish community's observances of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day, Bamattre said that so far there was no such evidence.

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

City Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district encompasses the four houses of worship, said he is asking the City Council to post a $25,000 reward for the apprehension and conviction of the arsonist.

Schulweis told The Journal 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 have also been a series of calls from the district attorney and other municipal and county officials.

On Thursday evening, Schulweis was to convene a meeting of the entire congregation at a neighboring church or synagogue to talk about the incident and allay excessive fears.

"All of us have been religiously violated," Schulweis told the news conference.

Rabbi Allen Freehling, representing the L.A. County Human Relations Committee, declared that "no peddler of hate can divide this community."

Gennady Shtern, Valley director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was on the scene and pledged the full ADL resources to aid law enforcement and Jewish institutions.

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 the damage at the four houses of worship.

Donations and equipment should be sent to the Valley Interfaith Council, 10824 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Check should indicate "House of worship support fund" on the memo line.

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