Anatoly Smolkin, seen here in a screenshot from a security camera at Congregation Beth Sholom in 2021, has been convicted of making threats at Congregation Emanu-El.
Anatoly Smolkin, seen here in a screenshot from a security camera at Congregation Beth Sholom in 2021, has been convicted of making threats at Congregation Emanu-El.

Local Jewish man with history of mental illness convicted of threatening S.F. synagogue

A 39-year-old Jewish man with a history of menacing Bay Area synagogues has been convicted of making criminal threats toward Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

The guilty verdict, handed down by a San Francisco jury on Friday, means Anatoly Smolkin could face a prison sentence of up to six years, according to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. Since Smolkin has been held without bail since April 2022, his time already served will likely count when a judge determines his sentence later this month.

Smolkin’s case has disturbed and saddened members of San Francisco’s Jewish community where he grew up. A once-promising graduate of UC Berkeley’s rigorous electrical engineering program and a law school graduate, Smolkin has been beset by mental illness throughout his adult life, people close to him said.

“When he was taking his medicine, he was an excellent guy,” said his rabbi, Bentzion Pil of the Schneerson Center in San Francisco. Smolkin had been attending the Orthodox congregation in the Richmond District almost daily prior to his arrest, Pil said.

Smolkin had a criminal history and had spent much of his 30s behind bars. In 2013, he was convicted on dozens of stalking and criminal threat charges, which included “sexual violence and death threats,” as well as threats to an 11-year-old girl, according to a court filing, He was sentenced to prison and was released in 2016.

He’s not an antisemite. He loves Jewish people. He loves Israel.

Smolkin was convicted again in 2018 for making violent threats in a delusional, handwritten letter to the Solano County District Attorney’s office.

In 2020, that conviction was overturned. An appeals court judge ruled that his handwritten statements, including that a prosecutor had been “sentenced to death in Moscow for the crime of kidnapping a soldier of the armed forces of Russia,” were so delusional that a “reasonable listener” would not have found them to be a “serious expression of intent” to do harm. He was released from prison.

In 2021, Smolkin began to show a pattern of harassing Bay Area synagogues and Jewish institutions.

On Aug. 7, 2021, members of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley said he interrupted Shabbat services, yelling about “Jewish doctors and lawyers” ruining his life.

Also that year, leaders at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco said he showed up about a half-dozen times, aggressively harassing staff.

“Every time it gets worse,” then executive director Vered Cohen told J. at the time. Cohen said Smolkin followed up one visit with a “really disturbing email about [how] ‘he’s going to bring justice’” and something about a “bombing.”

Rafael Brinner
Rafael Brinner

Rafael Brinner, director of community security for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, said a “number of organizations targeted by Anatoly Smolkin” contacted the Federation for help dealing with the problem between 2021 and 2022.

“He was harassing several organizations in our community,” Brinner said.

In November 2021 the Federation “even went so far as to hold a webinar on dealing with repeated harassing behavior” for Jewish community institutions, including synagogues.

Meanwhile, Smolkin’s threatening behavior continued, culminating with the incident last year that led to his current conviction. On April 7, 2022, according to the District Attorney’s Office, Smolkin approached Emanu-El’s front entrance. He “threatened to kill everyone there and blow up the synagogue,” the District Attorney’s Office said. “The security staff on-site recognized the danger and immediately notified authorities.”

Smolkin was arrested that day and has remained in custody since.

A graduate of Northwestern Law in Chicago, Smolkin was admitted to the California bar in 2010 but has not been eligible to practice since 2012, state records show. He was disbarred in 2017.

People close to Smolkin said he had been prescribed mood-stabilizing drugs, which he often refused to take. The people asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

They said Smolkin was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, when it was part of the Soviet Union. His family was able to immigrate to the U.S., and he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Sherith Israel in 1997 in San Francisco. He attended Lowell High School in San Francisco, according to past media reports.

Pil said Smolkin, who was homeless and often slept on buses, came to the Schneerson Center where a free meal is provided daily.

Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
The Schneerson Center in San Francisco, Feb. 2023. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

“He’s not an antisemite. He loves Jewish people. He loves Israel,” Pil said.

He said Smolkin was often a “pleasure” to talk with and is knowledgeable about a lot of topics, including politics. Pil testified on Smolkin’s behalf at trial. “A person who needs medical help — you don’t just put him in jail,” Pil said.

However, Pil added, he also understands the point of view of others in the community.

“They think he’s an evil person,” he said. And from their perspective, “I agree with them.”

In statements this week, Bay Area Jewish community organizations expressed gratitude and commended the District Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement for their actions in the case.

The conviction comes just months after a man walked into the Schneerson Center during a study session and fired blanks from an imitation gun.

“Our Jewish Community is a little safer today,” David Goldman, executive director of Emanu-El, said in a statement to congregants. “I can confirm that our security team did everything possible to keep us safe and followed protocol to the letter.”

The Anti-Defamation League weighed in on the verdict.

“This conviction provides much needed justice for the Jewish community,” the ADL regional office based in San Francisco posted Tuesday on social media. The organization thanked San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and the San Francisco Police Department for “dedication to pursuing this case & keeping the community safe during this troubling era of heightened antisemitism.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area “applauds DA @BrookeJenkinsSF and her team at @SFDAOffice for this conviction,” the organization posted Monday on social media. “As antisemitism and hate continue to rise, we must work together to ensure San Francisco is a welcoming place for all.”

Smolkin’s sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 28.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation tracks threats to the Jewish community. To report an incident, click here.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.