Crime at synagogue, cemetery vexes town
The Torah inside B'Nai Zion Synagogue in Key West was stained by smoke from an arsonist's work. Headstones bearing Hebrew memorials and the Star of David were overturned at the island city's cemetery.
Now, a Florida congresswoman is pushing for answers in two separate acts of arson and vandalism that, to some, are evidence of anti-Semitism in the close-knit community known for tolerance.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, has written U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "inquiring about avenues of investigation" on the two crimes.
"These deplorable acts have devastated members of the congregation who are still rebuilding not only B'Nai Zion but also the morale in the congregation," the letter said.
The synagogue, built in 1887 and one of the oldest in South Florida, was damaged April 16 by a fire authorities say was arson. There was $700,000 in damage, and the Torah, the sacred scroll containing the Jewish scripture, was sullied by smoke. Rabbi Joseph Hirsch, who lives in an apartment at the synagogue, was temporarily relocated to a hotel.
ATF investigators are interviewing witnesses and analyzing evidence, an agency spokesman said Wednesday. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, the state fire marshal, Monroe County sheriff's investigators and Key West police also are involved.
Two weeks ago, vandals knocked over eight headstones in a section of Key West's cemetery marked B'Nai Zion. The tombstones had Hebrew lettering and symbols.
No one has been charged and the incidents are not officially deemed connected, Key West police spokeswoman Cynthia Edwards said.
However, a lead is being pursued in the cemetery case. Three men asked for directions to the cemetery the morning of that incident, according to a witness. Their identities are being sought, Edwards said.
Authorities aren't calling the fire and cemetery desecration hate crimes, because there was no specific evidence of anti-Semitic motivation, such as graffiti. The perpetrator must have demonstrated prejudice under Florida hate crime law.
"We're not sure what the motivations were, but (the crimes are) certainly very sick," Ros-Lehtinen said in a telephone interview.
Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley wrote a letter to Ros-Lehtinen stressing that the city is putting full effort into the investigation and welcomes all help.
"We've been known for our diversity for a long time and acceptance of all peoples, all religious beliefs, and we will make sure that those rights of any individual are protected," Weekley said.
B'Nai Zion's answering machine says Saturday services are being held in the rabbi's apartment and Tuesday night bingo has been moved to the Lions Club. "We are attempting to rebuild," the message says.
Art Teitelbaum, the director for the Anti-Defamation League in Miami, cited a poll completed in May that shows that 17 percent of Americans hold anti-Jewish views, a rise from 12 percent in 1998. He also cited another ADL study that said 626 anti-Semitic incidents were reported for 2002 through May. That's about 11 percent more than in the first five months of last year, when there were 564.
The relaxed, anything-goes reputation of Key West seems incongruous with the synagogue fire and cemetery desecration, Teitelbaum said. But the incidents "should be a reminder that the virus of hatred and anti-Semitism can be in any community."
New Muslim center's $900 sign vandalized a third time this year
BOCA RATON -- Vandals have destroyed a sign for a new mosque and Muslim cultural center for the third time this year, police said.
The $900 sign announcing construction of the Assalam Center was set on fire Monday, according to Boca Raton police.
The 48 -by 96-inch vinyl sign was also burned in March, then the replacement sign was slashed about 13 times with an ax on July 17, crime scene technicians said.
Police are investigating the crimes as simple vandalism. Officers would need to identify suspects and interview them to learn their motives before the acts could be investigated as hate crimes, police spokesman Jeff Kelly said.
"Unless somebody saw it or knew someone who did it, it's going to be a rather tricky" case to solve, Kelly said.
"It doesn't mean anything but hate," said Dr. Reda Abdel-Fattah, a member of the center's board of directors. "Someone, somewhere doesn't like seeing that sign and knowing that we're building something there."
The Assalam Center is planned to include a mosque, a family social and cultural center and programs for children and education.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several crimes against Muslims were reported in Boca Raton, 16 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.
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