With the Jewish communities of northern New Jersey on heightened alert, some 200 religious and community leaders gathered on Jan. 12 to discuss the recent string of anti-Semitic incidents in the county with law enforcement and government officials.
The meeting followed by one day the most recent, and most serious, in a series of attacks on Bergen County synagogues — a firebombing that targeted the Montrose Avenue building in Rutherford that houses Orthodox Congregation Beth El and serves as the home of its rabbi, Rabbi Nosson Schuman; his wife, Pessy; and their five children — ranging in age from seven to 15. They and Schuman’s father were asleep in the house at the time of the attack (see related articles).
The community meeting was held at the Paramus offices of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey under the joint auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Synagogue Leadership Initiative.
Two nights later hundreds of people gathered in the gymnasium of Felician College in Rutherford to show support for Schuman and his congregation. Schuman suffered mild burns while extinguishing the fire, but on Jan. 14, he strummed a guitar as he sat with his family and area clergy in the gymnasium.
The Rutherford attack was the fourth aimed at the Jewish community since mid-December. The earlier incidents involved spray-painted Nazi symbols on local synagogues. On Jan. 3, a small fire was set at another synagogue in Paramus. All of the attacks took place in the early morning hours.
Because of the use of a firebomb directed at a religious institution, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have joined local law enforcement agencies in investigating the incidents.
“I knew there were people who hated me,” the rabbi told a packed press conference following the JCRC/SLI meeting. But, he added, he drew solace from the outpouring of interfaith support. “What I see is the beauty of the American people,” he said.
The Saturday evening program mixed the songs of the late Shlomo Carlebach with Christian hymns and included remarks by Christian and Muslim clergy, politicians, and area residents.
Only a small number of those within the gymnasium were wearing yarmulkes. Several nuns in habits sat in the first row of the bleachers, members of the college’s Franciscan order.
Pastor Gregory Jackson of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack quoted the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The only thing that will allow the voices of evil to win is for the voices of goodness to do nothing.” King’s birthday, a national holiday, was marked on Monday. Said Jackson, “We will not allow evil to win in our communities.”
The Rev. Gregory Rupright, pastor of the Rutherford Congregational Church, said, “Tonight all these faiths and all these people show that we are dedicated to justice.” He led the group in singing “Shalom Chaverim” (“Hello Friends”).
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said he is “saddened by the sting of anti-Semitism” but told the gathering, “I’m going to leave tonight uplifted and with the belief that the children of light will overcome the children of darkness.”
At a post-meeting press conference, local government officials spoke of their determination to solve the crimes and protect the Jewish community.
County Executive Kathleen Donovan said the Office of the Bergen County Prosecutor was following leads, but added, “That’s all that we can say” at this time.
Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Dist. 9) said police officials have promised to increase patrols around synagogues.
“It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religion is, you’re entitled to freedom — and there is no earthly reason why this kind of hatred at this point in time should be allowed to exist,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Also at the press conference were Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) and Scott Garrett (R-Dist. 5).
In his closing remarks on Saturday night, Schuman said, “Maybe this was the wake-up call we needed to work for unity.”
A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Standard; it is reprinted with permission.