The members of Tacoma’s Temple Beth El yet again chose worship over worry by concentrating on Yom Kippur observances despite a vandalism incident and an arson attempt prior to the holiday.
The Tacoma News Tribune reported last week that a neighbor of the temple dialed 911 after spotting a fire at the building early Sunday morning, Sept. 23. Local firefighters arrived on the scene at 12:26 a.m. to find a burning fire-starter log under a gas line next to the building. A second log was found about fifty feet away, near another part of the building. Damage was estimated at under $1,000.
“Had the neighbor not reported it, or had the fire department not gotten here as quickly, you can tell just looking at it that it would have been far, far worse. So we’re very grateful for that,” said Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Mark Glickman.
The attack followsed the spray-painting of the words “Zionism plus U.S. equals 5,000 dead” on the pavement of the temple parking lot a week earlier. The acronym “RAHOWA,” standing for “Racial Holy War”—a tag line of the white-supremacist group World Church of the Creator— was also spray-painted, according to Brian David Goldberg, executive director of the Pacific Northwest regional office of the Anti-Defamation League.
“About 10 months ago the World Church of the Creator did a massive mailing list calling for a day of rage in solidarity with the Palestinians after their second intifada started. And so, what you’re having here is, far-right groups are using this as an opportunity to exploit the U.S. relationship with Israel and calling this a great Zionist conspiracy and all these other things,” Goldberg said last Friday. “It sounds like something from an Islamic or radical-left group, because they’re saying the same thing. So we’re getting it from both sides.”
Goldberg said that he suspected that the two incidents at Temple Beth El were related, due their timing. He also indicated that the FBI and the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had launched an investigation and that “we are strongly encouraging the U.S. Attorney’s Office, when they find the perpetrators of this arson, that they prosecute to the full extent of the law, as they’re doing with the attempted arson of the mosque in Northgate [in Seattle in September].”
Almost exactly a year ago, on Sept. 15, 2000, a chemical was used to burn a swastika into a section of lawn at Temple Beth El; a few days later, Rabbi Glickman’s car, parked in the temple parking lot, was vandalized with spray-painted swastikas and anti-Semitic epithets.
“I am usually one to try not to raise any undue alarm — not to keep it a secret, but just to not make a huge deal out of vandalism when it happens, because that gets people very scared,” Glickman said. “This time was different because they tried to burn down the building.”
As of Monday morning, there were no new leads or developments in the case, according to Jim Mattheis, public information officer for the Tacoma Police Dept. “It’s still pretty early in the investigation,” he said.
Asked about special measures the police are taking, Mattheis replied, “Obviously we’re doing some high-profile patrols right now around the temple. The district [patrol] cars are very aware of what’s going on. We take this very seriously. We took the arson fire as definitely an escalation in the type of problems that they’ve had.”
On temple members’ reactions to the attempted arson, Rabbi Glickman said, “The congregation responded in a wide variety of ways: fear, anger, sadness, a determination not to tolerate anybody trying to capitalize on the terrorism in New York and Washington [on Sept. 11], for whatever despicable ends that they try to use it here.
“But we as a congregation were unshaken in our resolve not to allow this incident to distract us from all the important work that we had to do for Yom Kippur,” Glickman continued. “The Days of Awe are a time of internal search and repentance, and a time to focus on how we, individually and collectively, can make ourselves the best people that we can be. That is a lot of work, and that is where we needed to focus our efforts over Yom Kippur.”
Glickman also said that the temple had received a strong show of solidarity from the local community: A candlelight vigil organized by Associated Ministries of Tacoma–Pierce County drew some 500 well-wishers.
“It was an overwhelming and heartwarming experience to see and feel the love and support that this community has for us…We feel truly blessed,” he said. As for law enforcement, Glickman noted that “The Tacoma Police Dept. has been very supportive of us. We asked for added security: They gave us everything we requested and more.”
Hal Rosengard, president of the congregation, also stressed members’ determination “not to let the arson and the police presence and all the distractions take them away from participating in the High Holidays. The attendance at all our services was greater than last year— the participation was greater than last year—and on Yom Kippur eve and all day Yom Kippur, the focus was on the service and not the distractions.
“They were there as Jews; they were there to do what they had to do.”