Swell of interfaith aid bolsters the rebuilding efforts in Sacramento

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From the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Salt Lake City to the Uniting Church of Canberra, Australia, an avalanche of interfaith support has descended upon all three Sacramento-area congregations that sustained losses in the June 18 arson fires.

Both Jews and non-Jews the world over have been sending donations, letters and offers of help.

"I am not Jewish — in fact, I am not particularly religious — but when I saw the newspaper headline about the temples that were burned in Sacramento, tears began welling in my eyes," said Marceline Therrien in an e-mail message to congregants of B'nai Israel, through its Web site.

"Being a gentile does not decrease my anger about this situation, nor does it give cause for a deficit of compassion for you, the Jewish people," wrote Alexis Posey.

Gregory Ramos, a registered nurse from Waipahu, Hawaii, wanted to know the name of a book or video he could send to replace one lost in the fire.

The swelling of support began the day of the predawn arson attacks. During Friday evening services on June 18 at Reform Congregation B'nai Israel, the Rev. Faith Whitmore, representing the United Methodists in town for an annual conference, delivered an impassioned condemnation of the assault — then presented Rabbi Brad Bloom with a check for $6,000 raised by members.

"For two seconds there was absolute dead quiet," said Alan Cantan, a longtime congregant. "Then the hall shook with a thunderous applause. People broke into tears — me too. It was like all of the emotion of the day and evening poured out in those few minutes."

"Sacramento has a wonderful interfaith bureau, but we've never seen this kind of congregant-to-congregant show of support," said Jennifer Kaufman, who is coordinating donations for the rebuilding of the B'nai Israel library, which was destroyed in the fire. "To see representatives of all the different faiths coming together in a single voice at the community service brought tears to me eyes. I can't even talk about it now without crying."

Donations to the Unity Fund have now passed $235,000. More than $142,000 had poured in from businesses, individuals and agencies in the region and throughout the country before the Westfield Corp. announced on Tuesday of last week that it was donating $50,000. The fund, earmarked for rebuilding efforts by the three congregations, is administered by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region.

A spate of interfaith rallies have been held in communities from the South Bay to Modesto.

In the South Bay, a mosaic of community and religious groups under the wing of the National Conference for Community and Justice was planning a musical program and rally to be held last night at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. Participants included Baha'i of San Jose and Santa Clara County, the Islamic Education and Information Center, the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, the office of San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, and numerous congregations and churches.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement expressing "solidarity" with the Sacramento-area congregations and "our Jewish brothers and sisters." Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento informed his colleagues of the spate of fires at a special assembly in Tucson, Ariz., calling it "an attack on all of us."

"Acts like this make it painfully clear that one of [their] challenges will continue to be combating religious and racial prejudice and hatred — hatreds that have cost too many lives in our century and those which have preceded it," said Cardinal William H. Keeler. "We bishops stand united in condemning terrorism which targets innocent people in revenge for the injuries which the terrorists conceive to have been committed against them. We also condemn the targeting of religious sites and the repositories of religious knowledge, culture and tradition."

The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento contributed $10,000 to the Unity Fund and an additional $10,000 to erect a museum of tolerance, first proposed by Rabbi Brad Bloom of B'nai Israel. Late last month, the Sacramento City Council unanimously allocated $100,000 for the museum and the Mercy Foundation donated $10,000.

Support for the museum and for the ravaged congregations came from other community agencies and businesses as well:

*Sacramento's Nehemiah Progressive Housing Development Corp. pledged $10,000 for the museum. Gov. Gray Davis vowed state support, while Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), a member of B'nai Israel, said he would pen legislation seeking $500,000 in state funds to kick off the project. The Unitarian Universalist Community Church and the Sacramento Unitarian Church passed an "Action of Witness" calling on all congregations to lend support for the museum and other educational efforts.

*The 20-30 Club of Sacramento, a fraternal organization, sent a check for $4,000. Businesses, from tree services to architectural firms, have offered in-kind contributions for the temple rebuilding effort.

*The Westfield Corp., a Los Angeles-based real estate development firm, contributed $50,000 to help rebuild the synagogues. The owner-operators of the Westfield Shoppingtown Downtown Plaza in Sacramento issued the check to the Unity Fund. Westfield Corp. is the U.S. subsidiary of Westfield Holdings Ltd., an Australia-based firm that manages the portfolio of 37 regional shopping malls.

The Sacramento-area conflagrations are being investigated by federal and local law enforcement agencies as a hate crime. Literature attributed to the World Church of the Creator was found at two of the three sites: Congregation Beth Shalom in suburban Carmichael and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, a small Orthodox synagogue in downtown Sacramento.

The Illinois-based World Church, which has five active chapters in the Sacramento area, encourages visitors to its Web site to download and reproduce the literature and distribute it.

Last week at B'nai Israel, staff removed a plywood barricade so congregants could see the damage for themselves. They also displayed a myriad of letters and cards sent by well-wishers. A sampling:

*"The real loss is the sense of safety and community that has been disturbed — for us non-Jews as well, for we must protect all of us or we can protect no one," wrote Diana Henderson of Monterey.

*"As far away as Australia we hear of these events and are deeply disturbed," said Bruce Edgerton. "We shall be praying for your community as it works to recover from this event." His comment was followed by a statement from the Uniting Church of Canberra.

*And from Gloria Krusemeyer of Northfield, Minn., who sent a check: "Maybe one day, the world will be a safe and accepting place. I hope it's not before the human race is extinct."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.