Jewish groups vow to help rebuild burned churches

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Responding to the epidemic of arson fires in Southern black churches, Jewish activists are taking action. In addition to raising funds, some are lobbying Congress for sterner federal measures against hate crimes and arson.

Two Bay Area organizations are contributing funds toward rebuilding the churches, at least 37 of which have burned during the last year and a half.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation maintains an "emergency mailbox" for contributions. (Checks can be mailed to the JCF, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 95105. Include a note specifying that the money is for the "Rebuild the Churches" fund.)

In addition, the San Francisco Interfaith Council sent a $2,000 gift to aid in rebuilding efforts and will conduct a community-wide service Monday, June 24 at St. Mary's cathedral, 1111 Gough St., in San Francisco. Contributions will be accepted.

The council represents Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu and Protestant denominations. Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel is its immediate past chair and Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El sits on its board of directors.

According to Rita Semel, executive vice chair of the council and a member of Emanu-El, the council voted unanimously to send money from a fund reserved for earthquakes and other disasters.

"This certainly came under the disaster heading," Semel said.

However, a larger opportunity presented itself last week, when Congress began considering the Church Arson Prevention Act, which the House was expected to pass as early as this week.

Jewish groups such as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League have asked members of Congress to support the measure, which would make it easier for federal law enforcement agencies to prosecute arsonists.

The measure is being considered as an amendment to the Federal Religious Vandalism Statute, the so-called "hate crimes legislation" passed in 1988.Under that law, a crime against religious institutions falls under federal jurisdiction only if it results in over $10,000 in damage. The law applies only to religiously motivated hate crimes.

The groups are working to expand the law so that it includes not only religiously motivated vandals but also those motivated by racism. By claiming their crimes were racially and not religiously motivated, suspected vandals can now avoid federal court.

The proposed act would make it easier for arson cases to be tried in federal courts by eliminating the $10,000 minimum.

Michael Lieberman, Washington, D.C., counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, says closing such loopholes is an important tool for federal prosecutors.

"If a church was burned because everyone there was black, no one should be able to escape prosecution," he added.

Lieberman said the ADL is reviewing hate-crime laws in the states where church fires occurred, hoping "to improve or expand state hate-crime laws."

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) has introduced a similar measure in the Senate, though Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to author "broader, more ambitious" legislation, Lieberman said.

Meanwhile, the ADL ran full-page ads last Friday of last week in The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, urging readers to "speak out," write supportive letters to members of the burned churches and "contribute as much as you can to help rebuild these houses of worship."

Future ads will be co-sponsored by the Urban League and are scheduled to appear in African American and Jewish newspapers and as radio public-service announcements.

This week, the American Jewish Committee launched a fund-raising effort to rebuild the burned churches in conjunction with the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At the same time, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the New York Board of Rabbis are establishing a fund to rebuild the Matthews Murckland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., which was destroyed by fire June 6.

The church's pastor, Larry Hill, addressed the groups Tuesday, when he was presented with an initial $10,000 gift on behalf of the New York Jewish community.

It is "very, very important that the Jewish community not be so arrogant and naive as to think that this could not happen to synagogues," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the foundation. We should be "rallying together with our brothers and sisters in the South."