South Bay rabbis pledge support to burned church

In the wake of a fire that destroyed a Los Altos Hills church with a predominantly Palestinian congregation, seven rabbis have promised to help rebuild the site and lend their support to the investigation of the blaze.

Calling the destruction of the Antiochian Orthodox Church of the Redeemer a "great loss to our community," the South Bay rabbis pledged in a statement to "help them rebuild their spiritual home" and "support all efforts to investigate" the fire.

The 17-year-old church building, where Jews and Arabs have met for interfaith dialogue every other month, was completely gutted by a three-alarm blaze that started at 4:46 a.m. Sunday, Some fear the 170-member congregation was the target of arsonists because its parishioners are primarily of Middle Eastern descent.

As of Bulletin press time, federal fire investigators were still trying to determine the cause.

"Hopefully, this was just a horrible accident," said one of the statement's signers, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. "But if it turns out to be something more, we have to be empathetic and stand up against acts of hatred."

Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, where the Jewish-Arab Dialogue Group alternated its monthly meetings, also signed the statement. She said she was "shocked" when she learned that a fire had destroyed "this church where I have a relationship."

She immediately called parishioners to express her sympathy and offer them the use of Shir Hadash if they were in need of a space.

"Eight months ago they took us into their sanctuary and showed us some of their new artwork, of which they were very proud," she said. "Now it has been destroyed. We can understand that, because we know how we'd feel if our Torah was burned."

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills also offered help to the church as well as the use of its facilities, according to the senior rabbi, Janet Marder.

"There's a generalized sense in the community about the safety of our religious institutions," she said. "We don't yet know what was behind this fire, but I think it has contributed to this feeling of unease."

Those at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City, which has twice been desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti in recent weeks, understand firsthand what the church's parishioners must be going through, said the synagogue's rabbi, Nathaniel Ezray. Beth Jacob has made a donation to the church's reconstruction fund and on Sunday the kindergarten-through-seventh-grade Hebrew school students will write letters of support to the church.

In addition to rabbis, others, including the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League and those involved in Jewish-Arab dialogue groups, have offered help to the church.

Jonathan Bernstein, ADL's regional director, and Gil Serota, regional board chair, sent a letter to the Rev. Samer Youssef at the Church of the Redeemer, vowing that the civil rights agency will "keep a vigilant watch on the investigation of this fire." If the cause is determined to be a hate-related arson, they wrote, "we hope you will accept our help and support in responding to this crime."

The Jewish Community Relations Council's Yitzhak Santis said his agency also will get involved and condemn the fire "if it is determined an arson and hate crime."

As a show of solidarity, Len Traubman of San Mateo, who regularly attends meetings of the Jewish-Arab Dialogue Group, went to a service with Church of the Redeemer colleagues from the dialogue group at their sister church, St. Stephen's in Cupertino. Afterwards, he and others drove up to see the remains of the Los Altos Hills church.

"I felt a tremendous sadness," said Traubman, who co-founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group 10 years ago with his wife, Libby. "You think to yourself, Who needs more pain right now?"

He and Aron are encouraging the Jewish community to attend the church's service this Sunday, which will take place at 10:30 a.m. in another building on the site of Church of the Redeemer, 380 Magdalena Ave.

Larissa Keet, a member of another Jewish-Arab dialogue group called the Compassionate Listening Project, agreed. She said she hopes that as Jews "we can open our heart to the other side in a way that makes us feel humanitarian and isn't going to make us feel as if we're betraying Israel."

The responsiveness of the Jewish community is heartening for church members such as Reyad Katwan, a member of the Jewish-Arab Dialogue Group.

"There are so many bad things happening both in the Middle East and here that there is a lot of anger in all of us," said Katwan. "But I've always thought that in order to have lasting peace, Jews and Arabs have to work together hand in hand, side by side."