Sacramento Jews overcome by grief and pride

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Max Littman arrived at his synagogue in shorts and T-shirt Friday, just in time to see a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent carry a Torah out of the sanctuary.

In hours Max, whose family belongs to Congregation B'nai Israel, would become a bar mitzvah. "He could smell the smoke on this Holocaust Torah that has survived so much. He said, 'Why can't people just accept each other?'" said his mother, Jan Littman.

"Max was pretty upset," said Rabbi Brad Bloom. "But he was really determined to go through with this and make this a success. His family is very strong, very supportive."

Other members of B'nai Israel heard news of a predawn arson fire at the Reform synagogue in Sacramento's Land Park District, but as investigators blocked off the site to cull evidence, they were prohibited from seeing the damage for themselves.

"All day, members of our temple phoned each other seeking news about how bad it really was," said congregant Alan Cantan. "Was this the beginning of another reign of terror for us? Was this another Kristallnacht? Why do they still hate us so much?"

B'nai Israel's services were quickly rescheduled in the Sacramento Community Center Theater. Cantan expected no more than 250 to show up. Instead, he arrived to find 1,800: Asians, African-Americans, Methodists, Buddhists.

"I wasn't going to go at first," Cantan said. "However, I thought that someone should be there to stand up to the terrorists."

For state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who is also a member of B'nai Israel, "It's been a week of very mixed emotions.

"It's been anguishing, and I've had feelings of great anger," he admitted.

Despite the swell of support arising in the aftermath of the arsons, Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific region, said "We tend to underestimate the impact something like this has on people. It creates a great deal of anxiety."

A new wave of grief overcame many this week as federal agents finished gathering evidence and turned the synagogues back over to congregants.

"It was appalling," said a shaken Geri Ross. After surveying the damage to the Reform Congregation Beth Shalom, Ross, an office volunteer, settled down to open the mail, which included piles of checks and sympathy cards.

"We've just started cleaning out," she said. "It's hard to talk about. It's been a pretty difficult day."

Tonight marks retiring Rabbi Joseph Melamed's last Shabbat at Beth Shalom. "What an ending for him," Ross said sadly.

For Max Littman's family, "It's been such a mixture of grief and pride," his mother said. "The enormity of it is hard for him to take. We continue to talk every day. But he sees the chais in all the windows," which the Sacramento Bee printed so people could cut them out and display them as a show of support.

But while members of the three affected congregations are buoyed by the concerted show of support and the allocation of vast law enforcement resources, they must deal with displacement. All are meeting in borrowed rooms. And all are mulling security measures.

At Sacramento's small Orthodox Kenesset Israel Torah Center, the destruction came on top of a renovation project in which congregants donated their labor to make $18,000 worth of improvements to the former frame house. "We were so pleased," said president Steve Haberfeld. "Our concern now is, 'Where do we go?'"

But the synagogue is launching a national fund drive to help build a shul. "We'll be bigger than ever," Haberfeld said. "A Christian neighbor sent a $100 check to help with the rebuilding. People in a more rural area take the time to do things like that."

Still, law enforcement agents have advised synagogue officials to install video cameras.

But Bloom said that while security is a must, congregants should not "live in fear."

"Carry on as usual," he advised. "Otherwise, it is a victory for terrorists."

At Congregation Beth Shalom, counselors are helping congregants cope with the shock.

"When I came in, the foyer was oily and wet, and there was broken glass everywhere," said Jana Uslan, the Reform synagogue's president-elect. "I cleaned it up because I didn't want anyone to get hurt. But the sanctuary is quite a sight. It's very dirty, blackened and the chairs are charred. We want everyone to see it before we clean it up."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.