Authorities investigate synagogue fires amid fear of hatred

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A fire that damaged a synagogue here last week was deliberately set, authorities said Monday.

''There certainly was an explosion, and it certainly was an arson,'' U.S. Attorney Daniel French said. ''But it's premature to call it a hate crime. We just don't know the motive or the intent of the people who started this fire.''

The fire damaged a business office on the main floor of Temple Beth El late Friday, the start of Sukkot, a Jewish festival celebrating the fall harvest and commemorating the desert wanderings of the Hebrews during the Exodus. No one was in the temple at the time.

''This is not just a crime against a synagogue,'' Gov. George Pataki said after looking at the damage. ''It's a crime against all of us.''

Suspicions about the origin of the fire were heightened by turmoil in the Middle East and recent vandalism across the country apparently targeting Jewish sites.

On Saturday, an arson fire at a synagogue in St. Paul, Minn., destroyed a temporary wooden structure erected to celebrate the festival. The Adath Israel Orthodox Synagogue's exterior suffered some fire damage and its interior was damaged by smoke and soot.

Last week, another arson blaze gutted part of a synagogue under construction in Harrisburg, Pa., on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. And in Chicago, three Jews were attacked in separate incidents Thursday in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

French said it was too early to draw any conclusions from those incidents, but they were difficult to ignore.

''Are they in the back of our minds, yes,'' he said. ''But we're just trying to solve this with the best people.''

Local Jewish leaders remained wary as security was increased in and around their buildings.

''We're still in a state of concern and fear over what we're hearing,'' said Marci Erlebacher of the Jewish Community Center. ''It's something we all have to be extremely nervous about and aware.''

Dawn and Michael Marmor and their eldest daughter, Rebecca, 15, returned from services a few hours before firefighters were called to Temple Beth El to put out Friday's blaze.

''To me it's shocking that this kind of thing still goes on,'' Dawn Marmor told the Syracuse Herald-American. ''It's so scary to me that there's someone who hates that much.''


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