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Arson Caused Calif. Synagogue Fires

June 18, 1999

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Three synagogues were hit by coordinated arson attacks today, and hate literature blaming the ``International Jewsmedia″ for the war in Kosovo was found at one of the buildings.

The fires caused moderate damage to two synagogues and gutted a third temple’s library, destroying a collection of videos on Jewish history.

Federal officials were at the scenes, investigating the fires as hate crimes.

Investigators took one youth into custody and were seeking several others who were seen near Congregation B’nai Israel, where the library was broken into and set on fire.

Because of the timing and spacing of the synagogues, one person could not have set all three fires, authorities said.

A flier from an organization calling itself the North Atlantic Terrorist Organization was found at the Knesset Israel Torah Center by KOVR-TV.

``The ugly American and NATO aggressors are the ultimate hypocrites. The fake Albanian refugee crisis was manufactured by the International Jewsmedia to justify the terrorizing, the bestial bombing of our Yugoslavia back into the dark ages,″ the flier reads.

The first blaze was reported at 3:24 a.m. at B’nai Israel in downtown Sacramento. The second was called in at 3:48 a.m. at Congregation Beth Shalom in suburban Carmichael, and the third 10 minutes later at Knesset Israel Torah Center, in northeastern Sacramento County, Sheriff’s Lt. Jim Cooper said.

In the area of B’nai Israel, police saw four youths who ran when they saw the patrol car. One of the youths was caught and was being questioned. ``Nobody’s under arrest,″ said police Officer Eric Walker.

The worst damage was at B’nai Israel, where a library used by a nonreligious private school was destroyed and offices were damaged. The library housed what was described as a ``Jewish heritage video collection,″ including Holocaust videos, children’s videos and other films relating to Jewish culture.

At Beth Shalom, the sanctuary was damaged but the sprinkler system halted the fire on the first floor.

``It’s disturbing to be a target of this kind of activity,″ said Beth Shalom member Debby Nelson. ``But I feel fortunate. They attempted to do real damage. We have a good security and fire alarm system. It stopped them in their tracks.″

``This is my temple,″ said Estelle Opper, a member of B’nai Israel. ``I am heart-stricken.″

``You’re dealing with a sick mind,″ a distraught Rabbi Joseph Melamed of Beth Shalom told television station KXTV. ``There’s no question about it.″

A national church arson task force documented 670 attacks on houses of worship between January 1995 and September 1998. Of those, 33 were in California and one in Sacramento, a Baptist church.

``It is pretty rare, generally speaking, for three synagogues to be hit all in a row like this,″ said Jonathan Bernstein of the Anti-Defamation League’s San Francisco office. ``It’s obviously a sign that there was planning involved. It wasn’t just a spontaneous act.″

At the 100-year-old Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, synagogue officials said they would meet Friday to discuss what kind of security precautions they should take.

``We want everyone who comes here to feel safe,″ said Rabbi Reuven Taff.

Shortly after getting word of the fires, Taff called the rabbis at the three targeted synagogues and welcomed them to use his synagogue.

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