Torched shul prompts calls for tolerance

JERUSALEM — Images of Holocaust-era synagogue torchings were invoked after a Conservative shul in Jerusalem was set on fire over the weekend.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak led a call for greater tolerance in Israeli society after vandals hurled gasoline-soaked flaming rags into the synagogue Saturday night, setting ablaze sections of the main sanctuary and destroying several chairs and prayer books.

Nobody was injured in the attack at Kehillat Ya'ar Ramot, and the synagogue's three Torah scrolls were unharmed.

Police have not arrested any suspects. While it still remains unclear who set the fire, police hinted they suspect fervently religious Jews, motivated by ideology, were responsible.

Shmuel Ben-Ruby, spokesman for the Jerusalem police, said an investigation had been launched, but the agency does "not think this is the start of a wave of attacks on the Conservative and Reform movements," referring to two earlier unsolved attacks on Conservative synagogues.

The first involved an attempt to burn down Kehillat Ya'ar Ramot's front door just a few weeks ago and last week, the windows of the Eshel Avraham synagogue in Beersheba were smashed.

Barak said the latest incident is "an awful act that causes every Jew to shudder."

Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister for Israeli society and the world Jewish community, said after the attack, "Intolerance that leads to violence is a worrisome symptom in Israeli society.

"Just as we protest attacks on synagogues across Europe, we must be forceful in our condemnation of this act and exhaust all measures necessary to bring the perpetrators to justice," he added.

Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, was passing near the synagogue just minutes after the blaze began.

He entered the building and fell to his stomach to avoid the thick smoke.

"My first reaction was to see if the fire was near the Torah scrolls, and at the same time thoughts of the Holocaust flashed through my head," he told reporters.

World Union for Progressive Judaism President Rabbi Richard Block denounced the acts of arson, calling them "cowardly and despicable." In a statement, the former rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills called on authorities and Orthodox leaders to condemn the vandalism, "including those who do not accept the legitimacy of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism."

On Sunday, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, broke the silence from Orthodox officials on the issue. He, too, invoked imagery from the Holocaust to hammer his point home.

"We have already learned that book burning, in several places in Europe, preceded the burning of people," he said during an interview for an Israeli radio station.

Lau said he "condemned in a sharp and aggressive way" all violence, including attacks on "a building dedicated to prayers of one or another" religious stream.

"This has no connection to our opinions on the issue of the Judaic streams," he said. "This is related to the fundamental thing on the top of our agenda — the war against violence."

Conservative and Reform leaders are still waiting for stronger criticism from more Orthodox political and religious leaders. "We are encouraged by some responses," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel.

"But we are still waiting for the Orthodox political and religious leadership to speak out. I believe that in the yeshiva grass roots there are people who are rethinking the situation and are embarrassed — but they are waiting for their leaders and rabbis to speak out."

Sacks, who earlier in the day had complained about the failure of Israel's political or Orthodox leaders to condemn the attack, said Lau's statements marked the first time a chief rabbi strongly condemned violence against the non-Orthodox streams.

"It's a welcome development," said Sacks. "I hope that his words will send a message to those who consider violence a legitimate means of achieving their goals."