‘Somebody out there wants to hurt us’: Arson in Boston, Chicago rattles local Jews

A rash of fires that police say were intentionally set at Jewish community centers around Boston and in Chicago last week has left Jewish groups feeling vulnerable.

Rabbi Avi Bukiet, right, with his wife, Luna, addresses a news conference after multiple recent arson attempts on the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Arlington, Mass. Video screenshot

BOSTON (RNS) — A rash of fires that police say were intentionally set at Jewish community centers in Chicago and around Boston last week has left Jewish groups feeling vulnerable.

At the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Arlington, Mass., where Rabbi Avi Bukiet and his family live about 20 minutes outside of Boston, firefighters were called to put out a shingle fire May 11.

Then they were called there again for another fire May 16.

Then, about an hour later that day, firefighters responded to a nearby fire at the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham, where Rabbi Mendy Krinsky lives with his family about 30 minutes outside of Boston.

Authorities say all three Boston-area fires were deliberately set and are being investigated as potential hate crimes.

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“Somebody out there wants to hurt us,” wrote Krinsky’s wife, Chanie Krinsky, who co-directs the Needham Chabad, on Facebook after the fire. “Just because we exist. And that is frightening. Hate can’t be reasoned with. Hate just needs to be eradicated. A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness. Please take this opportunity to help us end this darkness. Do a mitzvah today to bring more light into this world!”

No one was injured, and law enforcement officials said they have not determined whether the fires in the two Boston-area towns are connected. Nor have they said whether the incidents were linked to a fire that damaged the Diyanet Mosque in New Haven, Conn., the same week, which police also say was intentionally set.

“People are scared but are refusing to be intimidated in any manner,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s New England regional director, Robert Trestan. “An attack on one synagogue is an attack on the entire Jewish community. It’s not just one building.”

An attack on a rabbi’s home is particularly alarming, he said.

“People lived there,” Trestan said. “It’s not like a synagogue, where it’s closed at night and no one’s there. It’s a reminder that people don’t just pray in a large, established building. And when you try to start a fire at an institution like this, you’re also trying to burn someone’s house down.”

Days later, in Chicago, police found Molotov cocktails outside a synagogue and an adjacent Jewish community center over the weekend. Authorities say two attempts were made Saturday night to ignite the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation and that windows of cars parked outside the synagogue and another nearby synagogue were smashed.

Chicago police released a photo of a man they are trying to identify in relation to the attempted arson on May 19, 2019, at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Chicago Police Department

“The willful effort to attack a house of worship, to try to burn it down, is a chilling reminder, at a time of rising anti-Semitism in the United States, of the vulnerability of synagogues and other Jewish institutions,” said Laurence Bolotin, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Chicago branch.

“While thankfully the attacks did not cause any injuries or damage, this incident is yet another disturbing reminder of the recent escalation in attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions,” David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.

Goldenberg pointed to the Boston fires and recent shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway near San Diego, which left a combined 12 worshippers dead.

In Massachusetts, the ADL, the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the state fire marshal have offered a combined $21,000 reward for tips leading to the arsonist’s conviction.

“This is something which has not just shook (my wife) Luna and myself to the core, but it has shocked the entire community, and they’re sharing that with us,” Avi Bukiet said in a news conference Friday (May 17). “What has gone on … it has targeted not just a Jewish center, it has targeted our personal family and we are hurting because of this.”

But Boston’s Jewish community leaders emphasized that the attacks have not broken their community’s spirits and that the chabads’ doors will remain open to all.

“We have committed our lives to spreading the universal message of light and love,” Luna Bukiet said. “This will not deter us. If anything, we will double down to bring more goodness into the world and create a better world for all of our children.”

Two weeks ago, the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham held a Shabbat service in response to the shooting at the Chabad of Poway. “Our response to cold-blooded, baseless, relentless hatred must be pure, unconditional love and acts of kindness,” the center posted on Facebook. “Today more than ever we must respond to darkness with unyielding light. He brought death to Shul. Let us bring life to Shul!”

Earlier this month, video footage also surfaced showing two separate incidents in which Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn were being assaulted and harassed on the streets.

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