Synagogue Desecrator Sentenced

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Sheidali Dzhalilov, on the night of Aug. 13, 2017.
Screenshot via
Philadelphia Police Department

Sheidali Dzhalilov, aka Ali Ulfanov, was found guilty Feb. 28 on charges of ethnic intimidation, intentional desecration of a place of worship and institutional vandalism.

He was sentenced to two months in prison, one month’s house arrest, 150 hours of community service, three months of parole following the end of his incarceration and three years probation. He is also required to attend counseling for cultural sensitivity and to write a letter of apology to the members of Congregation Beth Solomon. He was also granted work release.

That concluded an 18-month ordeal that began on a hot August night in 2017, when Dzhalilov bounded up the stairs of Congregation Beth Solomon, made a lewd gesture toward the camera and proceeded to urinate across the main entrance as Rabbi Akiva Pollock watched in shock on the security cameras.

Dzhalilov was flanked by his family at the sentencing hearing on the fifth floor at the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Justice in Center City.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the courtroom, a bus load of Beth Solomon congregants and other Jewish community members gathered to witness the sentencing and deliver victim impact statements. One woman, Ronit Treatman, wore a shirt that read, “Ethnic intimidation is NOT the new normal.”

Dzhalilov’s attorney, Lonny Fish, first attempted to persuade Judge Vincent Johnson to allow his client to rescind his previous guilty plea, initially made on Nov. 8. Fish argued that the charge of ethnic intimidation, committed with malice, did not accurately describe Dzhalilov’s actions, which were made in a drunken blur.

Fish even shared a similar story of his time at the University of Pittsburgh law school, wherein the attorney said he drunkenly urinated on the famous cathedral on campus. Fish said he didn’t have the courage or rectitude to take responsibility for what he had done, unlike Dzhalilov, who turned himself in after seeing stills from the security footage shared on social media, and realized what he had done. Johnson said he was unmoved, and the hearing began.

Dzhalilov’s sister, Adelya Ulfanov, delivered testimony on his behalf. Tearfully, she told Johnson that while she could not know her brother’s intentions on that evening, they were “not raised that way.” After her testimony, a friend of Dzhalilov’s got on the stand and said he could not account for the judge for why he had pulled the car over in front of the synagogue, though the restaurant they’d been been drinking at was just blocks away.

Following their testimony, Assistant District Attorney Brendan Flynn introduced the incident video. For the first time, it was totally silent in the courtroom. As the footage played, Dzhalilov looked down.

After the video, Flynn submitted a Facebook comment Dzhalilov had made two years prior to the incident. Commenting on a purported video of IDF soldiers harassing Palestinian women and children, Dzhalilov (writing under his screen name, Ali Ahiska) wrote, “This video makes me want to kill every single Jew out there, finish what Hitler couldn’t.” Flynn then referred to two incidents in Dzhalilov’s youth as being indicative of a prior tendency toward violence, which the judge found less than persuasive.

Then came the victim impact statements.

Beth Solomon members rose and described their horror at what had happened. Each had fled the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism to come to America; many had lost family in the Holocaust. Pollock, after giving a brief history of atrocities committed against Jews in the Holocaust, compared Dzhalilov’s act to Kristallnacht, arguing that such violence augurs future escalation.

Synagogue Vice President Alexander Tamarkin expressed his love and admiration for the life he had been able to live in the United States follwing his immigration from the Soviet Union, and said that Dzhailov should be deported for his unwillingness to follow the rules of religious coexistence in the U.S.

Paul Tenberg, a community member, told the judge that the people seated behind them — he motioned to them with a wave of his hand — were the result of Hitler being unable to “finish the job,” invoking Dzhalilov’s words. Many of them also pointed to the irony of Dzhalilov, a Russian immigrant who fled due to persecution of Muslims, being a perpetrator of a religiously based attack.

Several of the victim impact statements referenced Dzhalilov smiling and laughing during the hearing, which Dzhalilov seemed to deny by shaking his head. And Assistant District Attorney Christina Giardina testified that Dzhalilov had smirked and laughed during her initial meeting with him, where he was offered five years probation and 100 hours of community service.

Finally, Dzhalilov rose to speak.

Addressing the congregants, he apologized profusely, pleading with them to understand that his actions were no more than drunken stumbling. But Johnson quickly stopped him, clarifying that it was a rarity for him do so.

Johnson encouraged him to forthrightly answer questions that had remained unanswered, especially regarding his Facebook post. If he truly harbored no ill will toward Jewish people, why had he made that comment? Why had he chosen the synagogue as the place to urinate? Dzhalilov began again, but seemed to follow the same tracks he had previously laid.

After a brief break, Johnson gave his ruling.

He first addressed the congregants of Beth Solomon. Noting that Tenberg mentioned that he shared updates with a Facebook group of more than 10,000 people, who were looking for the judge to take a stand against anti-Semitism, Johnson said, “It’s not my job to send a message to the world.”

“The court does not punish on a global basis,” he said.

However, he added, he remained unconvinced by Dzhalilov’s testimony, noting his evasiveness on basic questions and the fact that, although apparently blackout drunk, he had bounded up the stairs of the synagogue with the ease of a sober man. Johnson delivered Dzhalilov’s sentence, denying a request for a delay in his being taken into custody.

“I was definitely happy with the way that the judge saw the defendant,” Pollack said afterward. “There’s no question that it was an anti-Semitic act.”

Pollack said that most of those in attendance were satisfied by the sentence, though some believed he deserved a harsher punishment.

“I definitely hope that this is over,” he said. “I really hope that we can turn the page and we’ll never have anything like this happen again.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I hope your congregation can find peace after such a horrific, degrading person tried to take away the beauty of your temple.

    My heart goes out to you as fellow Jews.

    I hope his punishment is enough to protect us all as Jewish Americans.

  2. Ignorance breeds hatred. Enough said. America is now in turmoil, and the divisions are even more prevalent with disinformation free-flowing all over. We should all say a prayer for this individual, who most likely, has been caught up in the ugly cult of hating instead of loving each other.

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