Jewish centers step up safety

Attacks in city, Seattle spur security push


With escalating conflicts in the Middle East and a recent attack at a Jewish organization in Seattle, Jewish congregations in the Baltimore area are increasing security measures at synagogues and other buildings.

The precautions are being taken as Baltimore police and federal authorities investigate a homemade firebomb made from a beer bottle that ignited after being thrown at a door of a library building at Baltimore Hebrew University on Wednesday.

That occurred less than a week after a Muslim gunman burst into the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and opened fire, killing one person and wounding five others. He later told police that he was "angry with Israel."

"The Jewish community is always cognizant of the need to protect members of the community and its institutions," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "We continue to do so, and at times of intensity in the Middle East, intensity with events back home, we up that security.

"Immediately after Seattle, we made sure that we would take all necessary precautions to try to prevent any such incident from happening here."

Since 2004, more than 30 Jewish organizations around Baltimore and Washington have received $1.6 million in federal Homeland Security grants to improve safety, Abramson said. Institutions such as schools, community centers and synagogues have used the money to install alarms, security cameras and lights and to take other steps to increase protection, he said.

No one was injured and little property was damaged in the attack at the university in the 5800 block of Park Heights Ave. in Northwest Baltimore. It occurred about 2:45 p.m. when an employee heard a bang at a steel side door, said Agent Donny Moses, a city police spokesman.

The employee went to investigate and saw a flicker of fire at the door, which was near an emergency exit door of the library, said a spokesman from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The staff member called maintenance workers, who extinguished the fire and notified authorities. Police later determined that the fire had been caused by an incendiary device.

ATF officials estimated that the firebomb, described as a Molotov cocktail, caused about $200 in damage. ATF agents will examine the remains of the device for forensic evidence, including fingerprints and DNA, and will analyze the liquid used in the bomb.

Police have no suspects or witnesses. They are investigating the incident as arson, not as a bias crime, because no notes or other messages were found, Moses said.

"At this point, there's nothing that would indicate that this is a hate crime," Moses said. "They have problems with juveniles in that area."

The ATF and the civil rights division of the FBI are assisting Baltimore police.

Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the ATF's Baltimore field office, said the incident might have been a "crime of opportunity" rather than a hate crime. But he noted that the assailant did "have to think enough to fill the bottle with liquid, so we'll have to look at the motive there."

Abramson agreed that "nobody knows for sure what it is" but added that "there had to be a particular reason that they decided to throw something against a Jewish institution."

Campbell said the ATF had no specific intelligence that Jewish centers in Baltimore are potential targets of violence. Still, he said, the FBI has issued "higher alert" warnings nationally to synagogues and Jewish community centers because of the conflict in Israel and Lebanon.

Barbara G. Zirkin, dean for academic administration and chief academic officer at Baltimore Hebrew University, said only faculty and staff members were using the library building yesterday and that the school is using a security grant to improve safety.

Rabbi Steven M. Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom, a reform congregation in Northwest Baltimore, said there would be "extra awareness" during services this weekend but that no additional measures had been taken beyond the security cameras, guards and other measures that have been in place for years.

"We're pretty stringent," he said.

Rabbi Mark G. Loeb at the conservative Beth El Congregation in Pikesville said precautions have been taken.

"We have done our share of things to make sure that we are safe," he said, declining to elaborate on specific actions.

Loeb said the incident at the university "could have been everything from a serious intention to a high school prank.

"I just don't believe we should start immediately panicking," he said.

Jan Morrison, cantor and executive director of Columbia Jewish Congregation, said Howard County police contacted the congregation to offer security. The reconstructionist group gathers at The Meeting House, an interfaith center in the village of Oakland Mills.

Howard County has a security plan for certain religious organizations, said Pfc. Jennifer Reidy, a Howard County police spokeswoman.

"While we don't expect any problems, we have increased security at religious institutions that we feel may be a target because of the situation going on in the world right now," she said.

Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said he could not comment.

"We are well aware of the incident in the city and other recent incidents, but we don't reveal the specifics of security measures," he said.

Sun reporter Matthew Dolan contributed to this article.

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