Between sundown on Friday and Saturday evening, the Jewish community typically takes time for reflection, faith and fellowship. It’s supposed to be a time of relative peace and quiet, and maybe even laughter.
But at least for a few synagogues in the area, that Shabbat peace was disturbed this past weekend.
Four temples were targeted in a series of vandalism attacks spanning from Thursday to Sunday. Police say someone threw rocks through windows at the Riverdale Jewish Center on Independence Avenue, Chabad Lubavitch of Riverdale on West 246th Street, Young Israel of Riverdale on Henry Hudson Parkway East, and the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale on West 250th Street.
But the man didn’t stop there, according to authorities. He reportedly smashed the windows of three cars along West 239th Street near The Moore Family Riverdale Counseling Center run by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
Police believe just one perpetrator is responsible for the entire rampage who, as of Tuesday, remains at large.
Whether the shuls were targeted specifically or by chance — as they and the cars were all in the vicinity of the Henry Hudson Parkway — remains unknown. Nevertheless, the New York Police Department isn’t taking any chances, assigning the investigation to its Hate Crimes Task Force.
Shabbat had not yet begun when the windows at Chabad Lubavitch were first smashed Thursday night, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov — who condemned this attack as a part of a broader trend of anti-Semitism.
“With anti-Semitism on the rise, unfortunately some cowards, some deranged people are just following along with other anti-Semites,” Shemtov told The Riverdale Press. “I just hope we catch them right away and there are no copycats.”
But Thursday wasn’t the only attack the West 246th Street synagogue would experience. More windows were broken Saturday evening, joining the Riverdale Jewish Center as two sites that were hit twice by the vandal.
Volunteers from Community Security Service — an organization that trains individuals to protect Jewish communities — were on-site at the Jewish center Saturday night. According to Richard Priem, the group’s deputy national director, the volunteers provided police with a description of the culprit which they hope will soon lead to his arrest.
While these attacks are disturbing, Shemtov said, they won’t stop his congregation.
“We have to be strong, and this is not going to change or deter us from continuing to come to classes, to come to synagogue, to be together,” the rabbi said. “If anything, this will make us stronger than (we) ever (were) before.”
No one was hurt in any of the attacks. At least physically.
But to CSAIR rabbi Barry Dov Katz and synagogue president Cliff Nerwen, this is so much more than some broken windows.
“An attack on a synagogue is an attack on all of them, and on all houses of worship,” they said, in a statement. “We will stand strong against hate and will continue to celebrate being Jewish, doing mitzvot, and supporting one another.”
Cesar Sala, the 50th Precinct’s community affairs officer, declined to share any further details about the incident aside from what had been already shared by NYPD’s headquarters. However, he did confirm additional officers from outside the 5-0 were in the area providing extra law enforcement support at the targeted synagogues.
“We have a heavy police presence right now,” Sala said. “We’re doing everything we can to close out the investigation.”
A surveillance video released by the NYPD shows the man reportedly in front of Young Israel throwing rocks so hard at the synagogue’s window, the spray of glass shards from the impact is clearly visible. He repeats this several times, even walking up to one window to kick the rest of the glass away from the pane.
Even being in the most northern reaches of the city, this isn’t the first time many of these Riverdale shuls have faced anti-Semitic attacks. CSAIR was the reported target of a failed firebombing the night before Yom Kippur in 2000. Then, less than a decade later, four men plotted to bomb the Riverdale Jewish Center, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
And it was only three years ago the community came together to mourn the 11 lives lost after a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The recent Riverdale vandalism earned national media attention and condemnation from a number of political figures, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Closer to home, local electeds including U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Councilman Eric Dinowitz joined for a rare joint statement denouncing the attacks.
“The threat toward synagogues and other Jewish institutions is real and we must treat these issues head on,” according to the statement. “Jewish people have been the victims of hate crimes and persecution for centuries, and this week’s events are a somber reminder that we must all be vigilant in weeding out anti-Semitism.”
Sasha Kesler’s synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, wasn’t among those targeted over the weekend.
Nevertheless, she was shaken by the reports of the neighboring shuls — and believes there’s historical precedent for that feeling.
“I think this is resonant for folks, that there’s a deeper pain that vandalism and destruction of Jewish property has often been a precursor, historically, to other violence that we’ve seen,” Kesler said. “This is not to say that this is all of that, but it’s something that can often be really triggering, because of our collective history of persecution across the world.”
While many praised the NYPD’s swift response to the vandalism, Kesler worries about what she sees as a knee-jerk reaction to wanting more law enforcement presence in response to violence — especially with recent conversations about what the role of policing should be within a community.
“I want to make sure that we don’t separate out the violence that happens at Jewish synagogues from the violence that happens toward people of color from the police,” she said. “I would like to see a moment where we’re all thinking about how ... we all feel safe together.”
For now, both police officers and synagogues leaders are on high alert. But whatever happens, Kesler prays for a peaceful outcome.
“We spend a lot of time in Jewish prayer praying for the world to be more perfect and more peaceful,” Kesler said.
“A prayer for peace is something that’s part of Jewish tradition to say three times a day. And that’s at the essence of what I want. I want there to be peace.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story appeared in the April 29 print edition before police arrested a Spuyten Duyvil man they suspect perpetrated the vandalism. Details of that arrest can be found by clicking here.
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