Support for burned synagogues swells no charges yet

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Six weeks after arson devastated three Sacramento-area synagogues, shows of support from across Northern California have infused the beleaguered Jewish community with a new confidence.

Close to ground zero, in downtown Sacramento last week, 250 people attended a gospel benefit, with "people singing about Jesus to raise money for Jews," according to Marc Carrel, chair of the Sacramento Jewish Community Relations Council. "They passed the hat and raised about $1,100" for synagogues damaged in the June 18 arson attack.

Elsewhere, earlier this month in Half Moon Bay, the Pacifica Interfaith Initiative kicked off a joint effort between Buddhists, Muslims, the Coastside Jewish Community and numerous churches to announce its Books Against Bigotry campaign. The project will collect book donations for Sacramento Congregation B'nai Israel, whose library was destroyed in the blaze.

Also early this month, nearly 1,000 people of varied faiths and ethnicities packed into the sanctuary of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga to hear San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, and other community and religious leaders decry hate crimes.

Smaller rallies were also held this month in Modesto and Santa Cruz to show support for the Sacramento Jewish community and express zero tolerance for crimes of bigotry.

Yet another rally took place on Tuesday of last week, when more than 100 turned out on the state Capitol steps for an anti-hate demonstration sponsored by the Yolo County Citizens for Affirmative Action.

JCRC chair Carrel, Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas Jr., and rabbis from two of the attacked synagogues — Brad Bloom of Sacramento Congregation B'nai Israel and Matthew Friedman, the new spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael — spoke to a diverse crowd.

"The point was to show continuing support," Carrel said. "People have calmed down a lot" since FBI agents recently notified the 32 people whose names appeared on a "hit list" compiled by two brothers who are being investigated for possible links to the arson attacks.

The list, discovered after the brothers were arrested in the July 1 slayings of a gay Redding-area couple, contained the names of a number of civic and Jewish community leaders.

"With time passing, people have become less tense," Carrel said. "We're getting back to the business of rebuilding and coming together as a community."

The fires were set within minutes of each other in the early morning hours of June 18. While B'nai Israel and Beth Shalom have been able to resume services and activities at their sites, the third targeted synagogue, Kenesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento, had its only facility — a converted home — damaged beyond repair.

Losses at the three synagogues have been set conservatively at $1 million — a figure that does not include contents.

Although fliers from a hate group called the World Church of the Creator were found at two of the three sites, the Jewish Bulletin obtained a copy of a letter from one of the Williams brothers to family and friends indicating he had become enraptured by a group called Christian Identity.

That group's founders claim Jews are the descendants of a union between Eve and the snake who invaded the Garden of Eden. Its members have been linked to a number of violent crimes across the United States.

Meanwhile, brothers James Tyler Williams and Benjamin Matthew Williams, arrested in connection with the Redding-area slayings, were arraigned Thursday of last week on a host of state charges. Denied bail, they remain at Shasta County Jail in Redding. If convicted, they could land on death row.

Shasta County Sheriff's Department investigators turned up a cache of incriminating items in a search of the Williams' residences. One of them provided a compelling link to the arsons.

It was a hand-scrawled note that read, "ZWEBNER-YID — $10,000 reward on us," an apparent reference to a reward for information on the arsons posted by London-based businessman Michael Zwebner.

Hate-linked arson and acts of violence are federal crimes. However, federal charges have not yet been filed.

"As far as prosecution goes, a double homicide is clearly a priority," said Lt. Bradd McDannold of the Shasta County Sheriff's Department Major Crimes Unit. "As far as other charges go, the feds can take a number. But there is nothing stopping them from filing charges. They could do that any time."

Federal officials declined to speculate as to when that might be, although investigators say they have more evidence than they need to support a hate-crime arson case against the brothers.

In a related development, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from Greenbrae, would tag stiffer penalties onto a conviction — and make it easier to investigate and prosecute violent hate crimes.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, authored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), passed unanimously in the Senate Monday and now is awaiting a presidential signature.

"The federal government has a whole host of resources it can bring to bear during an investigation, but existing law makes local folks jump through a whole lot of hoops to get it," said Boxer's Washington, D.C., press officer, David Sandretti. "But the key component [in the Sacramento case] is the provision that mandates tougher sentencing."

Meanwhile, as the three synagogues rebuild:

*The California State Attorney General has announced that the synagogues may tap a fund for the victims of hate crimes to help finance recovery efforts. With an exhortation to "expand, not just rebuild," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo made $6 million in guaranteed loans available to the congregations.

*Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco will donate 10 percent of revenues from its religion, philosophy and spirituality sections to B'nai Israel, whose library was annihilated in the predawn blaze. The bookstore is urging patrons to buy books for the library during the first week in September or a gift certificate enabling the synagogue to purchase rare books.

*By last week, Sacramento's Unity Fund had amassed more than $375,000 in contributions from agencies and individuals to aid the affected synagogues.

*The Sacramento City Council recently approved $100,000 for a Museum of Tolerance based on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The Sacramento museum is Bloom's brainchild.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.