MONSEY, N.Y. – Police so far have found no solid evidence pointing to arson as the cause of a fire that destroyed the synagogue of a fiercely anti-Zionist group that is a source of tension in Monsey, a largely Jewish community north of New York City.
Authorities were quick to say the fire that scorched the Neturei Karta building was suspicious in the hours after the Sunday night blaze, but they backed off Monday afternoon as they got a closer look at the charred house. Peter Brower, chief of the Ramapo Police Department, said that although officials had not ruled anything out, nothing emerged from the initial investigation to indicate that arson was the cause. No sign of accelerants was found, he said.
"Right now, we have an undetermined origin to the fire," Brower said.
The New York Post reported that investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigates domestic terrorism, arrived at the site on Monday.
"I am 99 percent [certain] that this was a terrorist attack," Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a leader of Neturei Karta, told the Post immediately after the fire. "This was a hate crime."
The group had claimed the fire was deliberately set because of the group's anti-Israeli views.
But after being told that fire investigators were now leaning toward the blaze being ruled accidental, Weiss said: "We know that we were threatened ... [But] if they say it wasn't [arson], it wasn't."
Members of Neturei Karta routinely burn the Israeli flag. They pray for the end of the Jewish state. A few members even traveled to Iran to participate in a Holocaust-denial conference.
Three holy scrolls were recovered seemingly undamaged from a safe inside the synagogue but several other holy books were destroyed in the fire.
The blaze heightened tensions Monday — as Passover began — surrounding the group, which locals are not shy about describing with words like "traitor" and "crackpots."
Referring to the burned holy books, Weiss said on Monday: "A part of our heart and soul was taken away."
He said critics had threatened, warned and harassed the group in the past. "Those who did this will repent," Weiss said of the fire. "They should turn to the Torah so that we can all have peace."
No one was injured in the fire. A senior Neturei Karta rabbi and his family, who lived on the top floor of the three-story, century-old structure, were not home.
The fire gutted the building, and charred prayer books were strewn across the front lawn Monday afternoon. The writing works of the rabbi who lived there were believed to be destroyed.
"They are crazy, but no one should burn down their synagogue," Holocaust survivor Shei Kormblue said as his family members were busy making matzo for Passover. "God will punish whoever needs punishment. It's not up to us."
The Neturei Karta has been the target of threats in the past because of its anti-Zionist stance.
Members oppose Israel because they believe there should not be a Jewish state until the Messiah comes and leads them to the promised land. They do not dispute that the Holocaust took place, but they believe Israelis have used the Holocaust to gain sympathy and advantage.
Neturei Karta members, who wear black hats, coats and long beards according to ultra-Orthodox custom, are often seen heckling marchers in annual Israel Day parades in New York. They have appeared publicly with many critics of Israel, including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It was the trip to Iran late last year by five members of the group that sent the outrage soaring to new levels. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a "myth" and said Israel should be "wiped off the face of the map."
Weiss said the attack on the Monsey synagogue was connected to the group's decision to travel to Iran. "This is all because we wanted to build bridges to tell the Muslims not to hate the Jews," he said.
Still, with a membership estimated to be only in the thousands, the Neturei Karta are generally tolerated or ignored, although they were greeted with a large protest at the Monsey synagogue upon their return from Iran.
"Ninety-five percent of us in the community don't agree with them, but we don't shun them," said David Abromevitz. "We know who they are. They send their kids to our schools and shop in our stores."
Monsey is an ultra-Orthodox community about 35 miles north of New York City. The streets are dotted with signs in both Hebrew and English, and businesses with names like "Jerusalem Auto Body" and "Kol Tov Pizzeria" are a frequent sight.
Weiss called it a "tragedy" that so many holy books went up in flames. "A part of our heart and soul was taken away," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.