Sacramento unites to rebuild synagogue attacked by arson

They sprawl on a dirt pile behind the crowd of 200.

The strawberry-blond Elishevah, almost 2, and Chaya-Sarah, 2-1/2– whose light-brown curls are springing out from beneath her Queen Esther-like, homemade, construction paper crown — dig their pudgy hands into the earth with fortitude.

A series of speakers address those gathered for a groundbreaking on Kenesset Israel Torah Center's large new property in Sacramento. But the young girls' faces remain fixed in concentration on the soil and rocks flying through the air at their own will, dirtying their legs, clothes and hair.

"This is the real groundbreaking," jokes Elishevah's mother, Tamar, the rebbetzin at KITC, as she tries to snap a picture of the girls — too young to know that anti-Semitic arsonists attacked three Sacramento-area synagogues, including their own, in 1999.

It is a typically hot, sunny summer day in the state's capital, and the speakers — including S.F.-based Israeli Consul General Yossi Amrani and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante — sit (and sweat) in a patch of shade with symbolic white hard hats and orange vests under their chairs.

They are handed bottles of water as they wait for their turn speak at the podium, which has an Israeli flag on the left, an American flag on the right and a huge oak tree framing the center.

"On June 18, 1999, we experienced the hate of the Williams brothers," Rabbi Yossi Etz-Hasadeh tells the crowd of Jews and non-Jews. "Today on Aug. 18, 2002, we experience actions of peace through our friends' and neighbors' commitment."

Behind the crowd, mostly seated in rows of chairs, an area for the future Orthodox shul is marked off by yellow "caution" tape. After the last speaker is finished, a gold-shovel ceremony marks the official groundbreaking.

Since the arsons, the shul has raised about $400,000 — about half the money it needs for the new building — and plans to begin construction in October. Though a rendering of the future building was on display, details were not available.

One thing is abundantly clear, particularly in the haimish atmosphere of the event: Far from dividing the community and stirring anti-Semitism, the arson has indeed had the opposite effect intended by its igniters, Benjamin Matthew Williams and his younger brother, James Tyler.

The two white supremacist siblings from Palo Cedro near Redding, who are also currently facing murder charges, were both sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the 1999 arsons. Therefore they were unable to see the warm smiles of Jews and non-Jews alike and the laughter of children playfully racing one another to the refreshment table, stocked with water, lemonade and doughnuts.

The arson has tightened community relations and strengthened ties between area law enforcement and religious leaders, emphasizes Etz-Hasadeh. "The Kenesset Israel Torah Center is an example of how their hatred can be overcome and a blessing can be brought to the world."

At the time of the arsons — which drew national attention and a federal investigation — everyone from the Oakland A's to those celebrating b'nai mitzvah donated money to help rebuild the synagogues, which also include Sacramento Congregation B'nai Israel and Congregation Beth Shalom in nearby Carmichael.

Total damage to the synagogues was estimated at more than $1 million.

And just a few months ago, a non-Jewish group called Men's Division International volunteered time to help re-roof one of the buildings on the KITC property. Several other non-Jewish groups have donated time and supplies — so much so that a recent demolition project on the property was done at no cost to the shul, says Etz-Hasadeh.

Barbara Lehman, executive director of the Human Rights and Fair Housing Commission, explains to the crowd that for many in Sacramento, like herself, this attack was a personal affront. She lived in the neighborhood where KITC formerly stood and was on scene the night of the attack.

"Today all of us belong to Kenesset Israel," Bustamante later says to the crowd. During an interview he explains: "Basically, all Californians have the same agenda. We want a safe place to be able to raise our families. It's an American agenda."

In a three-minute personalized video, Gov. Gray Davis proclaims Aug.18, 2002 "Kenesset Israel Torah Center Day in Sacramento."

Amrani calls it "a victorious day" because of "our desire to build where others desire to destroy."

Ilan Rubin, 12, and brother Amir, 5 "and three-quarters," run up to a long folding table covered in photographs from the KITC re-roofing event.

"Am I in here?" asks Amir of his older brother, his chin barely skimming the tabletop, his arms outstretched in the air.

"Maybe," says Ilan scanning all the photos.

"There's Dad," he tells his younger brother, pointing to a photo as Amir stands on his tiptoes.

Ari Huntley, 13, joins his friends at the table. Although Huntley says "I know all about prejudice," the idea that someone could actually burn down his family's shul seemed unreal at the time.

"It was scary," says Huntley. "But I wasn't afraid to come back."