Outpouring of support buoys victims of anti-Semitism

Petaluma residents of all faiths stood together last week at St. James Catholic Church to decry intolerance and hatred in the wake of a recent arson fire and anti-Semitic attack on Fishman Supply Company's delivery trucks.

In his Irish brogue, the Rev. Michael Culligan of St. James recounted the history of Jewish persecution.

"The memory of the past lies heavily upon us," he said during the March 30 evening service. "We're outraged at what has happened to you."

Members of the Fishman family — including Sol Fishman, the company founder, and Leland Fishman, his son and company president — filled the first pew of the church. The outpouring of support from the more than 300 people who came to condemn the March 15 attack moved the Fishmans to tears.

The Fishman family, well known in the community, has long been actively involved in civic affairs.

On the evening of March 15, arsonists set two janitorial and paper-supply company trucks ablaze and spray-painted anti-Semitic statements on both. The attack, which is being investigated as a hate crime, occurred at night in the lot outside the Fishmans' Petaluma business.

One of the trucks burned completely. On the other, the words "Die Jew" remained visible.

"The site of the burned-out truck was less offensive to us than the words 'Die Jew,'" said Sol Fishman's son, Petaluma attorney Bill Fishman. "You wonder why."

As of early this week, Petaluma police continued to investigate the case but had no suspect or solid leads. In an effort to stimulate new leads, the Fishmans planned to circulate posters throughout Sonoma County promising a reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the arson fire. Fishman Supply started the reward fund with $5,000. Donations have boosted the fund to about $20,000.

Bill Fishman echoed the sentiments of the speakers before him — the police chief, the superintendent of schools and ministers from a number of churches — emphasizing that Jews are not the only targets of hate. He stressed the need to preach tolerance of people of every faith, every race, every ethnic background, every sexual orientation, even every hair color.

"We must resolve to speak out against hatred whenever it appears," he said. "We can't let the idle joke go. If we create an atmosphere that does not abide bigotry, then maybe someday bigotry will disappear."

Petaluma Police Chief Pat Parks said he was committed to bringing justice to the Fishmans and the Jewish community. Parks and some of the religious leaders also urged compassion for the attackers.

Carl Wong, Petaluma's superintendent of schools, said that teachers would use the attack to teach a necessary lesson about hatred, violence and intolerance.

Deb Fitch, a Petaluma High School teacher, said she used the incident to emphasize the need for tolerance. The lesson tied in to a discussion celebrating religious freedom and her favorite holiday, Passover. The incident also would serve as a lead-in to discussing the 1995 death of Robin Reed, she said. Reed was a funny, bright 15-year-old Petaluma drama student who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge after some of his classmates tormented him because of his homosexuality.

Faith Ross, an African-American who has lived in Petaluma since 1975, said she knows firsthand what it's like to be a victim of hate. "Intolerance is not something we are born with but something that is learned," she said. "We need to start at home. You can't legislate the changes I'm talking about. These changes come from the heart."

Rabbi Leah Sudran of Petaluma's Congregation B'nai Israel called hate crimes "frightening reminders of the terrible darkness that enveloped our people during the Holocaust." But Sudran said the people of Petaluma have made it clear that the forces of prejudice and intolerance do not rule the city.

"We have come together in the belief that each person — no matter what his or her race, ethnic background, religion, gender or sexual orientation — deserves respect, dignity and a life free from hatred and intolerance," she said. "We have come together because the best weapon to fight intolerance and hatred is acceptance and love."

Sudran read Psalm 133, first in Hebrew: "Hinei mah tov u'mah nayim shevet achim gam yachad," and then in English: "How good it is to be together as brothers and sisters."

The Petaluma Healthy Community Consortium organized the community interfaith prayer service, and word quickly spread through area synagogues and churches.

The service ended with people standing, holding hands, swaying and singing "We Shall Overcome."

After the service, Leland Fishman said, "It was really an inspiration to have so many faiths in one house of worship preaching the same thing."