Michael Oren’s memoir of his time as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ally, refers to a number of historical events of international consequence, among them: the 1994 signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, the Gaza withdrawal of 2005, Israel’s war on Hamas in 2014.
But one date stands out both for its obscurity and its significance for the New Jersey Jewish community: April 18, 1971.
That was the day of an early-morning attack on the West Orange Jewish Center, now B’nai Shalom, the Conservative congregation Oren attended as a teen growing up in New Jersey.
“[W]hen I was a high school freshman, the phone rang with horrendous news: a bomb had blown up our synagogue,” Oren writes in Ally. “I ran to the scene and saw firemen leaping into the flames to rescue the Torah scrolls. The next day, our rabbi stood with Christian clergymen and led us in singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ But no display of brotherhood could salve the pain.”
According to a West Orange Police report, the bomb “blew off the roof and tore out the walls in the main lobby” of the synagogue in addition to “shattering windows and destroying offices, furnishings and the gymnasium.”
No one was injured.
At first, it was believed that members of the Ku Klux Klan planted the bomb beneath a heavy air conditioner in the synagogue vestibule. But no one was ever apprehended for the attack, despite investigations by, according to The New York Times, “a bomb squad from Fort Monmouth, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the local police.”
The bombing occurred in the early morning hours before Rabbi Meir Kahane had been scheduled to speak at the synagogue. Kahane, a Knesset member and founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, was a controversial right-wing ideologue who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from land controlled by Israel.
Kahane, who was assassinated in a Manhattan hotel ballroom in 1990 by El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian-born American citizen, accumulated numerous enemies in his lifetime, but none was linked to the bombing.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's report on the bombing, quoting Harold Mozeson, the Jewish Center’s rabbi, said the Kahane program had previously been rescheduled for May 2, although posters announcing the previous date had not been corrected prior to the bombing. According to JTA: “Although Rabbi Mozeson declined to link the blast with Rabbi Kahane’s appearance, he did note that it was a 'strange coincidence.'” Mozeson said that he and his congregants met after the bombing and decided “Rabbi Kahane’s invitation for May 2 still stands,” and that the congregants weren’t “going to make our decision subject to this kind of hooliganism.”
Seymour Graubard, national chair of what was then called the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and capture of the perpetrator. The Jewish War Veterans of New Jersey offered another $1,000 in reward money.
With no victims, suspects, or subsequent trial, memories of the bombing largely faded. Official estimates of the damage, along with photographs and hard copies of police reports in a pre-computer era, may have been lost several years ago when the department’s headquarters was flooded.
To complicate research on the case, West Orange detectives William Lang, James Underwood, and Philip Brown, who headed the investigation, are all believed to be deceased.
“I only know when and I know where it happened and what I've read on-line,” Sgt. Dennis McCall, a 15-year-veteran of the department’s Records Bureau, told NJ Jewish News.
“We do not have the incident report. I’ve searched for it, and we don't have it. There may have been photographs, but we don't have them now,” McCall said. “Certain things that do not have an arrest attached to them can be destroyed after a certain amount of years, and seeing that it is approaching 50 years old, it is possible the records were destroyed.”
One person with a clear memory of the incident is Michael Herman, a synagogue member who lived on Dawson Avenue a mile away from the synagogue.
“I was awakened by a single ‘boom’ on an early Sunday morning,” he told NJJN last week. “I ran to the synagogue and saw heavily damaged pews and smashed chandeliers.”
Rabbi Stanley Asekoff, who began his term as religious leader of the synagogue in August of 1972, over a year after the bombing, knew very little about the explosion.
“I never received any formal briefing. I have no idea why Kahane was invited. I wasn't on the scene when it happened,” he told NJJN in a June 6 phone interview.
Asekoff’s wife, Cecille, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest and executive vice president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, said, “I never heard anti-Semitism discussed as a reason for the attack.”
The incident, she said, “did not deter Stanley and me from wanting to be at B’nai Shalom. We were young and innocent at the time.”
Despite her sketchy knowledge of the bombing, she was reminded of it when nine members of a Bible study group were gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, in June.
“I did think about it,” she said. “The whole concept of ‘If you disagree with somebody you just blow them up’ is frightening.”
As has happened many times since after attacks on houses of worship, secular and religious communities united to mourn and condemn the assault on the synagogue.
Mozeson, who died in 1987, told the Jewish News in 1971, “The outpourings of expressions of support, coupled with prayers from Christians and Jews of all persuasions who see this senseless act of anti-religious vandalism as a challenge, is a heartening source of pride in our neighbors.”
Sidney Weinstein, chair of the Community Relations Committee of what was then known as the Jewish Community Council of Essex County, labeled it a “senseless bombing” and an “unconscionable affront to the houses of worship of all religious denominations.”
Paul Stagg, general secretary of the NJ Council of Churches, told the West Orange Chronicle, “This destruction and irrational act is repugnant to all persons.”
In a front-page statement in the Chronicle, the mayor at the time of the attack, Louis Falcone, called for “a show of solidarity against this desecration” and called the act “dastardly, vile, detestable, and criminal.”
In Oren’s book, the description of the synagogue bombing doesn't mention Kahane but comes amid Oren's recollections of a childhood in which “I often encountered hatred.” Oren, whose parents, Lester and Marilyn Bornstein, still live in West Orange, writes that he “rarely made it off the school bus without being ambushed by Jew-baiting bullies.”
The impact of the bombing still lingered when he talked to a reporter for The Star-Ledger in 2013.
“Can you imagine what this was for a 15-year-old kid?” Oren said in the profile. “I get very choked up when I think about it.”