Reform nursery school gutted in Jerusalem called hate crime

JERUSALEM — A nursery school operated by a Reform congregation here was virtually gutted Sunday night when a firebomb was thrown through a window. Hannah Sorek, chairwoman of the Reform congregation Kehillat Mevasseret Zion, believes that the firebombing was a hate crime.

"There are people who don't want us here," she said.

The attack took place at a time of heightened religious tensions in Israel, where the non-Orthodox movements have been calling for an increased role in the country's religious life, which until now has been under the sole control of the Orthodox.

The private school is located in a rented apartment in Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem. It serves about 40 children between the ages of 3 and 5, and had been scheduled to open its doors Monday, the first day of Israel's new school year.

Makeshift classes were held this week in the home of one of the children's parents.

Police said they have not yet found any suspects.

The kindergarten, which was to begin its third year, is named after Rachel Shami Munk, a kindergarten teacher and former Mevasseret resident who was killed last July by terrorists along with her husband, Ze'ev, and father-in-law, Uri, in a drive-by shooting near Beit Shemesh.

However, despite the fact that the fire destroyed most of the wall containing a tribute to her memory, "Raheli's picture wasn't touched. The whole wall is burned, but the picture of her and the children was untouched," said Aliza Landau, the school's educational director.

Kehillat Mevasseret Zion's Rabbi Maya Leibovich said Monday, "There's discomfort among certain elements in the community over the fact that there is a Reform congregation. There's a bit of jealousy over the fact that we've established such a successful kindergarten here. Apparently the people who decided to try to put a stop to it only want one type of religious education here.

"We can only hope that local officials will defend the idea of pluralism in our community," she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement Tuesday condemning the torching saying, "It was a very serious, revolting and abhorrent act, and under no conditions should arguments on these issues result in any kind of violence."

In New York, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, charged that remarks by Orthodox officials "have contributed to a climate of hate that makes such attacks possible."

He specifically referred to comments made earlier on the day of the attack by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau who, Yoffie said, compared Reform Jews to Arab suicide bombers.

"Such words open the door to the grim possibilities of terror and violence," Yoffie said.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, of the National Religious Party, said he would consider making funds available to the kindergarten.

"The best answer to those who committed this arson will be the restoration of the kindergarten in as short a time as possible," Hammer said.