Three synagogues in Sacramento were torched before dawn yesterday in what federal officials assume is a hate crime after finding anti-Semitic fliers in one of the temples blaming the "International Jewsmedia" for the war in Kosovo.
Investigators have no suspects yet. The fires broke out at different points in the city in the span of a half-hour, starting at 3:19 a.m., so police assume the arson was coordinated by several people.
After finding the fliers, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took over the investigation and are treating it as a hate crime. A 70-member task force will comb through the buildings this weekend and analyze the evidence, according to FBI spokesman James Maddock.
Temple B'nai Israel, a reform synagogue downtown that houses the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi, suffered the worst damage. Its library full of thousands of historic Jewish books and documents and a video collection as well as half the administrative wing of the temple were destroyed.
The two other temples, Congregation Beth Shalom, a reform synagogue in suburban Carmichael, and Knesset Israel Torah Center, a small orthodox synagogue in northeastern Sacramento County, suffered smoke and water damage in their sanctuaries after sprinklers doused the early morning fire.
A flier calling for an end to the "North Atlantic Terrorist Organization" was uncovered at Knesset Israel by a local television station.
"The ugly American and NATO aggressors are the ultimate hypocrites. 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," the pamphlet reads.
"We are Slavs, we will never allow the International Jew World Order to take our Land. We fight to keep Serbia free forever."
FBI spokesman Maddock confirmed the existence of fliers but would not discuss their contents.
Police initially detained four teenage youths spotted near one of the synagogues but released them yesterday afternoon after they were found to have no connection to the crime, spokesmen announced at a news conference.
By sunrise yesterday, rabbis and congregants had begun streaming to what used to be their house of worship but was now a cordoned-off crime scene. Jana Ulsan, president of the congregation at Beth Shalom, was one of the first to drive over with her husband. Her first question was to ask if the Torah, a sacred text kept in the ark, was safe, and police assured her it was.
Through a broken plate glass window, Ulsan noted that the physical damage was at least less severe than the emotional. "It's scary that this could happen to three congregations in half an hour," she said. "We felt so violated, having someone break into our building and set a fire."
She was luckier than the members of B'nai Israel. Rabbi Brad Bloom was allowed to tour his hull of a synagogue in the early afternoon. First he noticed that the library, one of the largest in Northern California, was destroyed. "There were collector's items, children's books, Torahs, thousands of books, all gone, nothing, nothing," he said.
He then walked into the main sanctuary to see that the piano was now charred wood, and the pews and chairs were singed and burned. "This is really devastating," said Bloom.
Members of B'nai Israel recalled that someone had thrown a torch-bomb at the synagogue in 1994 that missed the building in an incident officials said they do not believe is related to the latest arson.
In the past five years, there have been 39 arsons of synagogues and other Jewish establishments in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Most of the attacks targeted Jewish schools in the New York area. In 1997, arson seriously damaged two Los Angeles synagogues.
As the Sabbath approached last evening the rabbis forced themselves to try to plot out the future. There were evening services to be planned. A bat mitzvah was scheduled for next week. Friday night services for the two reform synagogues were moved to a community theater in town, where Jewish leaders expected thousands to show up.
Rabbi Bloom sifted through the rubble and picked out some hopeful themes for sermon, of a Jewish community bonding, of an entire city joining to fight hatred. In the end, he settled on a theme of rededication.
"We will cherish this memory as if someone sacred had died, and build from it," Bloom said. "We are going to come together and build a new place and in the end we will recover."
CAPTION: Investigators survey damage at the Knesset Israel Torah Center, one of the synagogues that burned early Friday.