RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Several Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices were thrown at a northern New Jersey synagogue early Wednesday, igniting a fire in the second-floor bedroom of the rabbi's residence in an attack that is being treated as both a bias crime and attempted murder, police said.
Wednesday's attack on Congregation Beth El in Rutherford was the fourth bias incident within a month against a Jewish religious institution or center in northern New Jersey, police said. Within the last three weeks, a fire was intentionally set at a synagogue in Paramus and anti-Semitic graffiti was discovered at synagogues in Hackensack and Maywood.
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said there was no evidence yet linking the four incidents, but they hadn't ruled out that they might be connected. He urged residents to be vigilant, but not afraid.
In addition to being classified as a bias crime, Molinelli said Wednesday's intentionally set early-morning fire was possibly the work of more than one person. The incident occurred about 4:30 a.m., when incendiary devices were thrown at various parts of the large Victorian-style home that houses Congregation Beth El on its ground floor, and the rabbi's living quarters on the second level.
Molinelli said it was being classified as an attempted murder, after one of the devices was thrown through a second floor window and into the bedroom of the congregation's rabbi.
"The manner in which this heinous crime has been committed has brought our office to really raise consciousness on this," Molinelli said. "This is certainly a hate crime, this is certainly a bias crime, this is aggravated arson, but most importantly, we are now looking on this as an attempted homicide."
Molinelli said there was nothing to suggest that the rabbi had been personally targeted, but that nothing had been ruled out so far as the investigation was continuing.
A wide coalition of law enforcement agencies, including the Newark office of the FBI, is participating in the investigation.
The rabbi, his wife, five children and the rabbi's parents were sleeping when the fire occurred. No one was seriously hurt. Police said the device thrown through the rabbi's bedroom window did not explode, but ignited, and the rabbi suffered minor burns putting it out.
Rabbi Nosson Schuman of Congregation Beth El told CBS 880 Radio that he saw a flash of fire outside his bedroom window before his bedspread caught fire. The rabbi said he got his wife and five children out of the building safely, and said damage to the building was minimal, in his estimation.
Investigators could be seen examining the sides and roof of the large white Victorian structure that houses the synagogue, which is set far back from the leafy, quiet street and has a large synagogue sign, a child's swing set and a trampoline in its front yard. The neighborhood is ethnically diverse, and is dotted with houses of worship of several different religions.
The prosecutor said northern New Jersey residents shouldn't be afraid, but should be vigilant, and that all religious institutions, not just those of the Jewish faith, should be on alert.
Law enforcement and representatives from more than 80 synagogues and Jewish day schools had planned to discuss the incidents on Thursday. Meeting organizer Joy Kurland of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey said the meeting would go on as planned.
Etzion Neuer of the Anti-Defamation League, which has offered a $2,500 award for the arrest and conviction of a suspect, said they were very concerned that there had been four bias incidents in such a short period of time.
"We view these as part of a deeply troubling continuum that we pray will end now," he said.
The synagogues in Maywood and Hackensack are about a mile apart. The other two are within about seven miles of each other in Bergen County, just across the Hudson River from New York City and near the Meadowlands sports complex.
The fire at Congregation K'Hal Adath Jeshuran in Paramus was discovered on the morning of Jan. 3 when members smelled gas in the building and contacted authorities. Fire and police officials determined an accelerant had been used in the rear of the building to start a fire. The fire had quickly burned itself out, and no injuries were reported. No arrests have been made.