Federal agents are tracking a number of hate groups with chapters in the area. High on the list is an Illinois-based organization called the World Church of the Creator, which has five active units operating out of Sacramento.
World Church fliers were left at two of the three torched sites, according to FBI officials. During Yom HaShoah services in April, similar fliers were left at one of the burned synagogues, Reform Congregation Beth Shalom in nearby Carmichael.
At 3:24 a.m. on Friday, June 18, flames tore through the library of Sacramento's Congregation B'nai Israel, destroying 5,000 books and 300 videos on Jewish culture and history. Minutes later, arsonists struck Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center. Combined damages may top $1 million.
FBI officials refused to comment on the role of the white supremacist group in this investigation or on possible connections to other reported hate crimes in Sacramento. But agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said they have not ruled out the World Church or two other groups, the Posse Comitatus and the National Alliance, which the Anti-Defamation League has tagged "the most dangerous hate group in the U.S. today."
However, according to Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL's Central Pacific region, the World Church is "directly linked. They left their fliers there."
While ADL officials stopped short of accusing World Church members of perpetrating the predawn arsons, they point out that the literature recovered from the crime scene blames the "International Jewsmedia" for the war in Kosovo -- a current theme among white supremacist groups.
Although he denied responsibility for the attacks, World Church leader Matt Hale told a Sacramento Bee reporter: "We can't condemn it. We believe the Jews have perpetrated far more atrocities on non-Jews than the other way around. Our response is they should look in the mirror to see who is responsible."
Hale insisted that his organization does not "persuade people by burning buildings. It's counterproductive," he told the Sacramento Bee.
But Bernstein said the group "has been tied to some very serious incidents." The ADL's Internet Monitoring Unit has been tracking the group for several months.
Those incidents include the murder of an African-American serviceman in 1991 and the vicious beating of a father and his son by 11 skinheads in Miami last year.
A World Church flier found Friday at the Kenesset Israel Torah Center claims: "We are Slavs, we will never allow the International Jew World Order to take our Land [sic]. The fake Albanian refugee crisis was manufactured by the International Jewsmedia to justify the terrorizing, the bestial bombing of our Yugoslavia back into the dark ages."
In an April 1999 issue of the World Church's monthly newsletter, Hale decried the NATO bombing of Kosovo as part of a Jewish campaign for world domination.
The World Church has active members in Auburn, Bakersfield, Carmichael, Citrus Heights, Hayward, Napa and Sacramento, including the Frontier Women, a Sacramento-based auxiliary unit, according to an extensive ADL investigative report.
Although Hale, 27, has said, "We neither condone violence or unlawful activities, promote or incite them," the group's own Web site describes World Church as an organization of "skinheads," whose "battle cry" is "Rahowa," an acronym for racial holy war.
Members of the same group left anti-Semitic fliers on cars at UC Davis and area high schools in April 1998, and "about 30 skinheads in this area have been linked with some very violent acts," Bernstein said.
The World Church actually rejects Christianity; the World Church's founder, Ben Klassen, has said Christianity was "concocted" by Jews "for the very purpose of mongreling and destroying the white race."
As part of the investigation into the arson, agents are tracking individuals who are known to have visited numerous area synagogues in recent weeks.
"We had a visit," said Kenesset Israel's president, Steve Haberfeld. "A dark-haired guy, ruddy complexion. None of us were sure what to make of it."
Two men, one in his 50s and the other around 20, also paid a call on a nearby Orthodox synagogue.
"They were asking funny questions like, 'Where are the services? When is this, where is that?'" said Rabbi Yosef Langer, leader of Chabad of San Francisco, discussing two mysterious visitors who showed up at a Sacramento Orthodox congregation when he visited on Shavuot. They also asked, "So, where's the Jewish flag?"
FBI Special Agent Nick Rossi cautioned against making too swift an assumption of guilt: "Even though they may eventually be proven to be connected to the individuals responsible for the fires, [the fliers] may contain misstatements about the group or its motives."
More than 100 agents from six agencies are working on the case, including the FBI, the ATF and Sacramento's police, sheriff's and fire departments, as well as the American River Fire District.
Damage to the Reform B'nai Israel has been estimated at $800,000. The Reform Beth Shalom, where perpetrators broke in and set fire to the bimah, suffered $100,000 in damages. It appears the attackers tried to burn the temple down, but a sprinkler system halted the blaze from spreading. Damage to the smaller Orthodox Kenesset Israel has been set at $30,000.
How to aid Sacramento-area
synagogues hit by arson
A number of civic and community organizations are collecting funds for the three damaged Sacramento-area synagogues. In addition, agencies are seeking information about the perpetrators:
* The North American Board of Rabbis, through its Northern California affiliate, is posting a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the arson attacks.
* In addition, Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla is offering $25,000, and businessman Michael Swebner, an Israeli immigrant, is offering $10,000.
* To contribute to a reward fund, send checks payable to "KOVR 13 Hates Crimes Fund" to Hate Crimes Reward Fund, c/o KOVR 13, 2713 KOVR Dr., West Sacramento, CA 95605. Information: (916) 374-1313.
Those with information about the fires are encouraged to call one of two toll-free hot lines:
* FBI hot line: (800) 435-7883.
* Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms hot line: (888) ATF-FIRE.
The following organizations are seeking donations:
* Checks payable to the Unity Fund can be sent to the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, 2351 Wyda Way, Sacramento, CA 95825. (916) 486-0906.
* B'nai B'rith has established a fund to help with the restoration. Write to Sacramento Synagogues, Disaster Relief, B'nai B'rith International, 1640 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, DC, 20036.
* Donations or expressions of good will can be sent directly to the three affected synagogues. Do not call, since the buildings remain closed.
Congregation Beth Shalom, 4746 El Camino Ave., Carmichael, CA 95608. Attn: Rabbi Joseph Melamed.
Congregation B'nai Israel, 3600 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95818. Attn: Rabbi Brad Bloom
Kenesset Israel Torah Center, 1024 Morse Ave., Sacramento, CA 95864. Attn: Rabbi Stuart Rosen.
Rebecca Rosen Lum writes for the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.