15-year-old boy charged in recent synagogue fires

Teen attended program run by Avodas Yisroel

February 21, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A 15-year-old Northeast Baltimore youth who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community has been charged with setting fires at two Upper Park Heights buildings used by synagogues.

The youth, whose name was not released because he is a juvenile, was arrested Tuesday and charged with several counts of malicious burning in connection with the fires, which erupted this month at the Machzikei Torah Congregation and the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, an Orthodox educational outreach center that is used by the Avodas Yisroel Congregation.

Police said the youth was a member of Avodas Yisroel; Jewish leaders said he did not belong to the synagogue but attended a study program associated with it.

"He's a member of the Jewish community. He comes from a religious family, a very nice religious family," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of Etz Chaim. "We're saddened and hopeful that this boy will be able to receive the care that he needs."

Tzvi Possick, president of Avodas Yisroel, echoed the chagrin that a member of the close-knit Orthodox community is accused of setting the fires. "I would tend to believe there's more of a sorrow than a relief," he said.

The first fire occurred at the Etz Chaim Center the morning of Feb. 2, shortly before Sabbath services for Avodas Yisroel were to begin. It caused extensive damage to a storage room, a hallway and an office in the two-story brick house in the 3700 block of Fords Lane. Damages are estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Porter said.

Later that week, after Avodas Yisroel moved to temporary quarters in the basement of Machzikei Torah in the 6200 block of Biltmore Ave., a fire broke out there Feb. 6, causing about $1,700 damage to a bathroom and a hallway. Another fire at Machzikei Torah on Feb. 10 caused nominal damage to a toaster, police said.

Arson investigators located witnesses who said they saw the youth leaving or entering the buildings shortly before or after the fires started, police said. Detectives also learned that the youth called the Fire Department or informed an adult after each of the fires.

The Jewish institutions are struggling to continue their work. Avodas Yisroel continues to meet in the basement of Machzikei Torah, Possick said, but future plans are unclear.

Etz Chaim classes are being taught at the nearby Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue. Porter is trying to arrange for a trailer to be placed in the Etz Chaim parking lot as temporary office space.

And its religious mission continues. On Monday, the center will sponsor a celebration of Purim, which marks the foiling of a plot to destroy the Jews in Persia recounted in the biblical book of Esther. The celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. at the former Summit Country Club, 6823 Old Pimlico Road.

It is a joyous celebration, Porter said, that commemorates the ability of the Jewish community to overcome difficulty.

"We're learning how to be able to see the hand of God," he said, "when God's face is hidden."

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

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