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‘Together we will rise above the fear’: Jewish leaders defiant after molotov cocktails thrown at synagogue

Police released a photo of a suspect who was seen throwing three Molotov cocktails at a Chicago synagogue located in the Lakeview East neighborhood. (Video: REF:Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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At first glance, the glass littering the ground outside the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago seemed harmless. But then the synagogue’s maintenance staff noticed the “puddles of oil and charred rags,” Rabbanit Leah Sarna wrote Monday in the Atlantic.

“We called the police and looked through our security footage; we realized we had been attacked,” wrote Sarna, who also serves as the synagogue’s director of religious engagement.

Police now say that early on Sunday a man tried to use three molotov cocktails to set fire to the synagogue located in the Lakeview East neighborhood just north of downtown Chicago. The building didn’t sustain any damage and there were no injuries, police said in a news release, adding that they are working to identify the suspect, who has been described as a male with “a light skinned complexion.”

But the attack comes at a moment of heightened tension for Jews in the city, as police are also investigating broken windows in cars parked outside other local synagogues, Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman with the Chicago Police Department, tweeted Sunday night. As a result of the two incidents, which are believed to involve different suspects, police have increased their presence at Jewish schools, businesses and synagogues around the city, Guglielmi wrote. It is “too early to tell” if the alleged acts can be considered hate crimes, he told HuffPost on Monday.

In a message to members of the congregation posted to Facebook on Sunday, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld wrote that these types of attacks “are intended to frighten and intimidate us.”

“Someone attempted to violate the sacred space that serves as the beating heart of our vibrant community,” Wolkenfeld wrote.

But fear of these threats would not keep Jews from gathering, Sarna wrote on Monday, noting that “Community is essential to being a Jew, because community is essential to being a human. We need one another.”

“And so we will defiantly continue to gather,” she wrote. “In our synagogue, behind the stained-glass windows that the arsonist failed to break, we will come together to worship and study and grow. Together we will rise above the fear that the arsonist so desperately hoped to instill in us.”

The incidents in Chicago are the latest to occur amid rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad, including violent attacks. In October, 11 people were killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack against Jews in the nation’s history. Last month one person was killed and three others injured after a gunman opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Southern California. More recently, two Jewish centers near Boston were set on fire in three separate incidents over the course of a week earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported.

“Under attack, we realize that there’s another type of vulnerability that we face when we gather,” Sarna wrote. “We are also vulnerable to outsiders. Just having a holy space at all, in this day and age, makes a community open to attacks.”

According to statistics compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, Jews in the United States experienced “near-historic” levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, with 1,879 attacks against individuals and Jewish institutions. In the Midwest, more than 120 anti-Semitic incidents were reported last year — “a 110% increase from 2016,” the ADL said.

The arson attempt in Chicago is “yet another disturbing reminder of the recent escalation in attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions,” David Goldenberg, the ADL’s Midwest regional director, said in a statement Sunday.

"We are thankful to the Chicago Police Department for its swift and professional response and call upon all local leaders to join us in speaking out against this hateful act,” Goldenberg said.

On Monday, Rep. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) wrote in a Facebook post that he was “troubled” by the “attempt to firebomb” the synagogue and also praised the Chicago Police Department’s actions.

Though Wolkenfeld told the congregation that “police are not aware of any specific threat targeting our building or community,” he emphasized that the synagogue has implemented a “proactive security culture of constant improvement.”

"Our security team is in regular contact with local police, security professionals at neighboring congregations, and with security consultants at local and national Jewish agencies,” he wrote in Sunday’s message.

On social media, the congregation received an outpouring of support and the attempted arson was condemned.

“I’m a friendly neighbor that lives down the street,” one person commented on Facebook. “I want to let you know that you’re not alone, I stand with you and the entire congregation. If there’s anything that you need please contact me. May the Lord bless you all.”