Police believe congregant is behind synagogue fires

Members were using parts of buildings when blazes started

February 08, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The investigation of suspicious fires involving two Upper Park Heights Jewish synagogues is focusing on finding a suspect in one of the congregations.

Investigators have told the leaders in the community that they believe the arsonist is a member of the Avodas Yisroel congregation, one of the two synagogues affected by the fires.

"The police have decided it's not a hate crime," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, where the first fire occurred early Saturday morning. "They think it's someone within the Jewish community."

Police interrogated a member of Avodas Yisroel on Wednesday but released him without charging him, authorities said.

The fire at Etz Chaim, in the 3700 block of Fords Lane, caused extensive smoke and water damage to the Orthodox outreach ministry. The fire broke out as members of the Avodas Yisroel congregation, a synagogue with about 50 members that rents space at Etz Chaim, were gathering for Sabbath morning services.

On Wednesday morning, a small fire broke out in a women's bathroom on the first floor of Machzikei Torah congregation, in the 6200 block of Biltmore Ave., where the members were reciting morning prayer. Also using the building that morning were members of the displaced Avodas Yisroel congregation.

The second fire has been ruled an arson by investigators; the cause of the first fire, although suspicious, has not been determined.

Agent Martin Bartness, a police spokesman, refused to comment on the specifics of the police investigation.

"The detectives have leads, and they're aggressively pursuing them," Bartness said. "This is not a directionless investigation."

Other Orthodox rabbis said the incidents have shaken the tight-knit community.

"This is very disturbing," said Rabbi Herman Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville and an Orthodox leader. "I don't know whether it's an inside job or an outside job. We're always alert for anything. We live in a dangerous time -- read the newspapers.

"We have to be very suspicious and careful," he said. "And hope to God nothing [more] serious will happen."

Rabbi Chaim Landau of the Ner Tamid congregation on Pimlico Road said the community is calm, but alert. "It certainly puts us on notice to be aware of anything strange going on in our respective synagogues, but I don't think this is as yet going in an anti-Semitic direction," he said.

Rabbi Ervin Preis, the leader of Suburban Orthodox congregation in Pikesville, said it would almost be a relief if the arsonist were a member of the Jewish community.

"We'd be very upset that someone in the community would do this," he said. "But we would feel some relief that it's not some organized program of an anti-Semitic nature."

Preis said the community is content to let the police do their job.

"I guess we have a lot of faith in the system," he said. "And we hope the police will find who's doing it and that whoever's doing it, that person will get help -- and punishment, if necessary."

As devastating as the fires have been, they have not disrupted the Orthodox routine. Porter said Etz Chaim classes are meeting at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue.

"My office is in my kitchen, and my secretary is in my dining room," he said. "We're looking into getting a portable trailer with offices to put on the [Etz Chaim] property."

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