FROM THE ARCHIVE: Security has been on local Jews’ minds for a long time J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on October 12, 2022

In August 1999 fear plagued the nations Jewish community. The Bay Area was not immune. The summer saw arson attacks damage three Sacramento-area synagogues, an outbreak of hate-crime sniper shootings in the Midwest, then shootings that wounded five at the North Valley Jewish Community Center outside Los Angeles and killed a Filipino postal worker nearby. In the aftermath of those incidents, Jewish communal organizations across the country went on alert, some turning toward security firms for protection.

Those words were written in 2000, just over 20 years ago, but the climate of fear they conjure is familiar today. This year, the Anti-Defamation League published a report noting that antisemitic hate incidents were at an all-time high in 2021, while California Attorney General Rob Bontas office said hate crimes reported to the state increased 32.6 percent from 2020, and anti-Jewish hate crimes reached their highest level since 2012, the first year for which data is available.

In response, synagogues and other organizations have stepped up security, including doing active shooter training, turning to the San Francisco-based Federation for security assessments and applying for state and local funds for target hardening.

It feels like a new era to some an era in which emboldened white supremacists regularly strew antisemitic flyers in the East Bay, North Bay, San Francisco and beyond but its not the first time the Bay Area has faced violent antisemitism, nor is the resulting anxiety anything new.

While synagogues and Jewish spaces have been attacked as long as there have been Jews (the first time this paper reported on a bomb thrown into a synagogue was in 1919), the 1999 synagogue arsons in Sacramento bear an eerie resemblance to the white supremacist actions of today.

In June 1999, two men brothers from Shasta County set fire to three Sacramento-area synagogues. The brothers, who were white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists, also set an abortion clinic on fire and murdered two gay men before being arrested and convicted.

At 3:24 a.m. Friday, flames tore through the library of Sacramentos Congregation Bnai Israel, destroying 5,000 books and 300 videos on Jewish culture and history. Minutes later, arsonists struck Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, although damage was not as extensive. Combined damages may top $1 million, we wrote about the synagogue attacks.

The following month, in July, we reported that police found the brothers had a hit list with the names of 32 prominent Bay Area Jews, including the editor and publisher of this paper at the time, Marc S. Klein. (There is something disconcerting about being on a list put together by two men already suspected of murder, Klein wrote in a column.)

In August 1999, a deadly attack occurred at the North Valley JCC in Los Angeles. The Bay Area was considering how to respond when we spoke to Rabbi Doug Kahn, at that time the executive director of the S.F-based JCRC.

Typically after an attack on Jews or Jewish organizations, agencies post armed guards, we wrote. But Kahn said the feedback from local boards indicates they are anguishing over whether its possible to be both armed and haimish. And agencies whose mission is to invite, include and involve are understandably reluctant to make visitors navigate a moat of electronic security to access services.

That same summer, a security expert named Furlishous Wyatt Jr. spoke to a group convened by the Anti-Defamation League about how synagogues could guard against malicious intruders:

Wyatt spoke disdainfully of the practice of propping a stairwell door open so that someone can smoke a cigarette. Remember that the convenience of one can lead to the detriment of many when dealing with security, he said.

By now, armed guards are common, as are video surveillance, alarms, solid doors and entryway lighting (smoke breaks, luckily, are largely a thing of the past). The Sacramento synagogues eventually moved on, with the help of an outpouring of financial and emotional support.

Both brothers convicted of the arson went to prison. One committed suicide while incarcerated; the other has a parole suitability hearing tentatively scheduled for December 2023, as per the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

But the antisemitism and the fear it sets off like a match to kindling remain. In just the past few weeks, incidents have been reported across the Bay Area, including once again in Sacramento.

As a member of one of the torched congregations put it in 1999: Why do they still hate us so much?

Read more:
FROM THE ARCHIVE: Security has been on local Jews' minds for a long time J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

Related Post


Comments are closed.