A firebomb attack on a synagogue in Rutherford is being investigated as an attempted homicide and a hate crime, Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli announced on Wednesday.
“You’re looking at 40 to 50 years in prison,” said Molinelli, addressing the “person or persons who are doing this act” at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
“Turn yourself in and end this now,” he said. “We will ultimately solve this crime and make arrests.”
Around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, several Molotov cocktails were thrown at Congregation Beth El, an Orthodox synagogue on a quiet residential street in Rutherford. One entered the second floor bedroom of the congregation’s rabbi, Nosson Schuman, and ignited his bedspread.
Schuman extinguished the fire — suffering minor burns on his hands — and evacuated the building’s inhabitants: he and his wife, their five children aged 5 to 17, and his two parents.
Schuman has served the small congregation since August 2009. While located in Bergen County, it is only two miles away from Passaic.
Molinelli called on religious and community groups — including churches and synagogues, as well as all area police — to be on heightened alert.
“I don’t think this is the type of offense where we should have a heightened awareness just in the Jewish community,” he said.
“This is not Damascus or Baghdad,” said Rep. Steve Rothman at the press conference. “This is Bergen County, New Jersey. We will catch them and prosecute to the full extent of the law.”
Rothman said he asked federal authorities to help the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office with the investigation and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is assisting.
Molinelli said that the quantity of firebombs thrown at the synagogue suggest that more than one person may have been involved. “We have a great deal of details on this. We have quite a bit more to go on,” in terms of the investigation, he said.
Molinelli said there was no evidence directly linking the Rutherford attack to last Tuesday’s arson at Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus, or to the December spray paint vandalism attacks on synagogues in Maywood and Hackensack.
Etzion Neuer of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said that his organization regards the attacks as related. “The Jewish community has been targeted. We would be foolish to suspect otherwise,” he said.
The ADL has raised the reward previously offered for information leading to the conviction of the perpetrator or perpetrators of the synagogue attacks to $2,500.
Said Neuer, “It’s important that people don’t use these incidents to become fearful. It’s important for the community to stand together in the face of hate,” and continue going to synagogue and Jewish communal events as always.
He repeated his calls for synagogues to draft security plans, a topic that was scheduled to be discussed Thursday night at the meeting previously called by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Synagogoue Life Initiative.
“Too often, small synagogues feel they are immune because they’re too small to be on the radar. No one is immune,” he said.
Said Molinelli: “Security cameras are a wonderful way to assist law enforcement.”
Molinelli said that from the rabbis bedroom, he looked down to the ground and thought about the effort it took to throw the firebomb.
“What brings people to do this?” he asked.
A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Standard.