In a week in which dozens of fires were set across Israel, one attempted arson attack stood out from all the rest, because it was directed at a synagogue, and the arsonists’ motives were markedly different.
When Kehilat Ra’anan executive director Yossi Cohen arrived at the Reform synagogue in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana at 7:19 a.m. on Nov. 24, he did not expect to see what he found: graffiti on the outside walls, envelopes bearing the names of Reform movement leaders, and a kitchen knife.
Cohen also found a blackened wall covered in soot, indicating that the vandals had tried unsuccessfully to set ablaze the stone building that houses the synagogue and three public preschools.
“When I was walking to the building, I saw that they had spray-painted my building again,” he recalled. “I ran to the preschools to make sure they were OK. None of the teachers had noticed yet. Then we saw the envelopes and the knife. We distanced everyone and waited for the police to come. It was scary, shocking, and hard. But at times like those, you act automatically. Everything I did was mechanical.”
It was not the first time the building had been vandalized since it was built 18 years ago, thanks to funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. It has happened five times before, most recently last January.
Nevertheless, this incident was seen as a game-changer.
For the first time, the graffiti specifically referred to the controversy over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. And never before had there been a knife left alongside death threats to the leaders of the Reform movement, who had apparently angered the vandals by leading an egalitarian service at the Kotel three weeks earlier.
The letters were addressed to Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism; and Anat Hoffman, who heads both the Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.
The vandals spray-painted on the building in Hebrew: “The divine presence will never leave the Western Wall,” along with citations of biblical verses from the books of Ovadia and Psalms that refer to God’s hatred for His enemies and the promise that He will avenge them.
Kariv filed police complaints on Nov. 29, not only in response to the vandalism in Ra’anana, but also regarding recent incidents of verbal abuse directed at Reform leaders on the Internet. Kariv said he was not concerned about his safety after the threat, but that his children, who heard about the Ra’anana incident along with him on the speaker phone in his car, were worried about him.
“I am not afraid, but in the complex Israeli reality, I cannot afford to ignore it,” Kariv said. “The incitement against the Reform community in Israel can lead to something. We saw what happened when a girl was stabbed at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem a year and a half ago.”
Kariv said he never thought he would ever have police commanders’ phone numbers on his speed-dial. Police are not providing bodyguards at this stage to Kariv, Jacobs, or Hoffman (no relation to the writer), but that could change.
There were reasons to be hopeful. Kariv said he was thankful for the outpouring of support he and the community have received from Orthodox leaders in Israel. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Orthodox Bayit Yehudi Party and lives in Ra’anana, said the incident troubled him deeply.
“As parents, educators, and human beings, we must condemn and uproot such acts,” Bennett said. “Around the world and in Israel, Jews live with different worldviews. There are deep disputes on substantive issues, including the Jewish way of life, but it is forbidden to allow disputes to descend into a harmful and inflammatory dialogue which could lead to physical harm to a person because of their opinions and faith.”
The Orthodox Union in the United States and the moderate Orthodox Tzohar movement in Israel also released statements condemning the incident. Rabbi Shaul Farber from the Modern Orthodox Itim organization came to the synagogue, as did Orthodox Knesset Member Aliza Lavie and American Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who is a regular congregant at a nearby Conservative synagogue. The statement condemning the vandalism that most impressed Kariv came from Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the ultra-Orthodox Kotel rabbi, who regularly clashes with the Women of the Wall and Reform and Conservative leaders over women’s and egalitarian prayer services at the Kotel.
Cohen said five days after the incident that his staff was still traumatized. He said he employed skills he gained dealing with emergencies during his IDF service.
Proving the community’s resilience, the following night Shabbat services went on at Kehilat Ra’anan, with some 500 people attending to show solidarity, much more than a normal crowd at the synagogue, which has 80 member families. Attendees said the service was especially joyful and spiritual.
Amir Shacham, the GMW federation associate executive vice president of global connections, and his staff also attended the Friday night service, at which Shacham spoke. But even earlier, Cohen said, he received a call from Shacham, who is based in Israel, offering immediate assistance from GMW.
The federation “has always been there for us in good times and bad,” Cohen said. “I’m happy to know we have such a great family across the ocean.”
The federation fought Israeli bureaucracy and the Orthodox monopoly to open the synagogue, providing seed money for the development of architectural plans; it was the first time a federation was so involved in forming a synagogue in Israel.
Two former federation presidents — the late Jerry Waldor, who was Reform, and Murray Laulicht, who is Orthodox — affixed the mezuza on the synagogue at the dedication.
The federation released a statement in the name of executive vice president/CEO Dov Ben-Shimon and president Leslie Dannin Rosenthal. “We support all streams of Judaism in their efforts to build communities according to their practices and traditions,” the statement said. “An act of this kind is an attack on the entire Jewish people and an assault on our basic values. Violence, incitement, and hatred have no place in any of our communities.”
The two thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for condemning the act and expressed confidence that they would take meaningful steps to fulfill the government’s commitment to making Israel, including the Western Wall, a safe and welcoming place for all Jews, and Israeli citizens.
The GMW federation also approved a $5,000 grant to the congregation to help purchase surveillance cameras that had been needed but were beyond its means.
Shacham delivered the news to Cohen. “We have seen the congregation as our second home since the beginning,” Shacham said. “The vandalism was hurting our soul, our own family, our home away from home.”
Cohen said Kehilat Ra’anan would be reinvigorated in its goals of promoting pluralism, social justice, and helping children with special needs.
“That someone tries to harm us because they disagree with us is painful,” Cohen said. “But we will continue with our educational efforts, reaching out to as many people as possible, changing as many minds as possible, and improving as many lives as possible.”