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Shul Regroups After Suspected Arson Incident

January 24, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Rabbi Leonard D. Gordon said most of the damage occurred in a room that was extensively decorated.
After fire ravaged a preschool classroom at Germantown Jewish Centre and left significant smoke damage in nearby rooms, law-enforcement officials have officially ruled the incident an arson.

Nobody was hurt by the fire that broke out at the Mount Airy synagogue around 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 18., shortly before preschool started.

Investigators have determined the cause of the fire to be incendiary -- meaning that "the fire was intentionally set," said executive chief Daniel A. Williams from the Philadelphia Fire Department.

However, the synagogue's rabbi, Leonard D. Gordon, said that "there is no indication that this was a targeted hate crime," and he was hesitant to even call it an arson.

"This could have been somebody inappropriately smoking a cigarette and leaving it there," he said.

Williams explained that the fire started from an open flame -- possibly a match or lighter -- that was applied to "class A combustible" material, like paper or rags. It then spread to the walls, ceiling and classroom furnishings, he stated.

Despite the fire, Shabbat services went on as planned Friday night and Saturday morning, although services were held in a lounge area rather than the sanctuary, which suffered some water damage.

Congregants even held an anti-violence event in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

"It shakes people up a little bit, but we worked this weekend to put out a calming message," said Gordon.

The incident is currently being investigated by the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Fire Department, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF is looking into it as a possible federal crime, according to spokesman John Hageman.

The fire broke out exactly two weeks after vandals spray-painted three swastikas on the side of the synagogue.

Because of the ongoing investigation, police, fire and ATF officials have not yet said whether a link between the fire and the graffiti exists.

Gordon called the graffiti "amateurish." He said that after this incident was investigated by police, human-rights groups, and defense groups, it did not fit "the profile of a warning or serious hate crime."

"We are looking at a very unfortunate coincidence of time," said the rabbi. "There is no indication that this was a targeted hate crime."

Barry Morrison, executive director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the ADL, said that he has not drawn any conclusions as to whether the two incidents are related or whether the spray-painting was done by juveniles.

He said that any time there is a swastika painted on a synagogue, it is "unmistakably an anti-Semitic message."

"We consider it an anti-Semitic incident unless people tell us otherwise," said Morrison.

The synagogue was also the target of vandalism in February of 2004, according to the Philadelphia Police Department; however, it was not categorized as a racial incident.

'Everything's Dirty'
Inside the destroyed classroom -- meant for 3- and 4-year-olds -- the windows are boarded with plywood, and the normally bright white walls and ceiling have turned pitch-black. The charred remains of toys and kid-sized furniture still linger.

"That room was actually a special room -- the veteran teacher there had done a very beautiful job of setting that room up," said Gordon, who noted that, years ago, his own child was educated in the very same room.

Two staff members were inside the building when the fire started, but ran outside safely, according to Sally Shenker, director of the early-childhood program.

The extensive smoke damage extends down the adjoining hallway.

While other classrooms were unharmed, they still cannot be used because of the significant amount of soot and residue that has built up inside.

A crew already has started the process of cleaning the damaged areas.

"Everything's dirty," lamented Gordon while examining a classroom far away from where the blaze began.

"Even though these rooms are more or less unscathed by fire, we couldn't put a kid in here now. The dust particles are going to be too filthy," he said.

Gordon added that it will take at least four weeks until the unaffected classrooms will be clean enough to conduct school. In the meantime, synagogue leaders and parents are looking for a temporary location.

Security guards are now stationed at the entrance to the building, and Gordon said in a statement released to congregants that more safety precautions could come soon.

Jay Ferman, a 95-year-old who has been a congregant at Germantown Jewish Centre since 1936, called the incident a "tragedy," but said that he's not concerned about the safety of congregants in the future.

"They're not going to scare me," declared Ferman. "I don't have the slightest qualm about going back, and if I had kids in the school, I would send them back." 

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