The first fire lit up the shingles of the rabbi’s home, forcing him and his family into their car for safety. Less than a week later, another blaze broke out there. Then it happened once more — this time at another rabbi’s residence, 13 miles away.
The homes in Massachusetts are also Chabad centers, where Jews worship, study the Torah and build community. Authorities are investigating this month’s fires as arsons. No arrests have been announced.
“Somebody out there wants to hurt us,” Chanie Krinsky, who runs one of the centers with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Krinsky, wrote on Facebook the day after their home burned. “Just because we exist. And that is frightening.”
The blazes in Arlington and Needham, Mass., follow arsons at mosques in New Haven and Southern California, three predominantly black churches in Louisiana, and a mostly Hispanic Pentecostal church in Pennsylvania. For members of those houses of worship, the intended messages were clear: intimidation, hate and marginalization, said Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
“Those houses of worship have a symbolic meaning,” Aten said. “They oftentimes are also identified with a particular ethnic group or racial group, and there’s that overall attack that’s happening on the identity that attend those houses of worship.”
The Massachusetts fires began the night of May 11, police said, when the rabbi of Chabad Center for Jewish Life of Arlington-Belmont and his family smelled smoke and heard the fire alarm.
A second fire at the home — also on the building’s shingles — broke out last Thursday. Like the first, this blaze did no damage to the home’s interior.
That same night, police said exterior siding burned at the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham. Chanie Krinsky wrote on Facebook that her husband ran outside with a fire extinguisher before the home’s smoke alarms went off. Krinsky woke up her children, she wrote, and ushered them into their car.
Needham police said the fire was being investigated as a “possible hate crime.” They said they did not know for sure whether it was connected to the blazes in Arlington.
Intentionally set fires are a somewhat new way that hatred toward Jews has manifested, Aten said.
The Ku Klux Klan frequently burned black churches in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Aten said. In the 1990s, there was another spike of arsons of black churches, which became so prevalent that Congress created a National Church Arson Task Force to investigate. The task force disbanded in 2001, and responsibility for investigating arsons was scattered among various agencies.
Arsons now affect a broader range of minority religious groups than they used to, Aten said — a trend he attributes largely to the nation’s divisive public discourse. He said individual people who have self radicalized, and not just organized hate groups, are increasingly becoming perpetrators now and targeting historically significant houses of worship.
“Because of the echo chambers that people are living in, whatever a person’s driving hate toward another group, there’s more opportunity for that to be amplified and intensified,” Aten said.
Reported hate crimes in the United States increased 17 percent in 2017, according to the FBI, bringing the number of incidents to 7,175. Arsons made up a fraction of total hate crimes, with just 42 incidents that year. Hate crimes aimed at Jews, meanwhile, rose 37 percent.
Those statistics are important, Aten said, because hatred of religious groups more often motivates arson than other types of violence. In shootings or assaults, he said the offender usually has a personal tie to the victims. When an arsonist targets a religious institution, Aten said, the perpetrator wants it to serve as a symbol.
Christopher Strain, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University, said in an email that a “contagion effect” can take hold among hate crimes against religious groups. He pointed to the recent indictment of a California man accused of setting fire to a mosque in Escondido and later opening fire inside a Chabad center in Poway.
Rabbi Avi Bukiet, who leads the Chabad center in Arlington, Mass., said at a news conference that the arsons have hurt both the local Jewish community and his personal family. Still, he said the center’s doors would remain open for anyone who wants to experience or learn about Judaism.
The community’s support, Bukiet said, has given him and his family strength to handle whatever comes their way.