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entries tagged with: Rabbi Nosson Schuman

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Fourth synagogue targeted

Latest attack was most dangerous yet

Firebombs were thrown at Congregation Beth El in Rutherford early Wednesday morning. larry Yudelson

A firebomb attack on a synagogue in Rutherford is being investigated as an attempted homicide and a hate crime, Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli announced on Wednesday.

“You’re looking at 40 to 50 years in prison,” said Molinelli, addressing the “person or persons who are doing this act” at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

“Turn yourself in and end this now,” he said. “We will ultimately solve this crime and make arrests.”

Around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, several Molotov cocktails were thrown at Congregation Beth El, an Orthodox synagogue on a quiet residential street in Rutherford. One entered the second floor bedroom of the congregation’s rabbi, Nosson Schuman, and ignited his bedspread.

Schuman extinguished the fire — suffering minor burns on his hands — and evacuated the building’s inhabitants: he and his wife, their five children aged 5 to 17, and his two parents.

Schuman has served the small congregation since August 2009. While located in Bergen County, it is only two miles away from Passaic.

Molinelli called on religious and community groups — including churches and synagogues, as well as all area police — to be on heightened alert.

“I don’t think this is the type of offense where we should have a heightened awareness just in the Jewish community,” he said.

“This is not Damascus or Baghdad,” said Rep. Steve Rothman at the press conference. “This is Bergen County, New Jersey. We will catch them and prosecute to the full extent of the law.”

Rothman said he asked federal authorities to help the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office with the investigation and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is assisting.

Molinelli said that the quantity of firebombs thrown at the synagogue suggest that more than one person may have been involved. “We have a great deal of details on this. We have quite a bit more to go on,” in terms of the investigation, he said.

Molinelli said there was no evidence directly linking the Rutherford attack to last Tuesday’s arson at Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus, or to the December spray paint vandalism attacks on synagogues in Maywood and Hackensack.

Etzion Neuer of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said that his organization regards the attacks as related. “The Jewish community has been targeted. We would be foolish to suspect otherwise,” he said.

The ADL has raised the reward previously offered for information leading to the conviction of the perpetrator or perpetrators of the synagogue attacks to $2,500.

Said Neuer, “It’s important that people don’t use these incidents to become fearful. It’s important for the community to stand together in the face of hate,” and continue going to synagogue and Jewish communal events as always.

He repeated his calls for synagogues to draft security plans, a topic that was scheduled to be discussed Thursday night at the meeting previously called by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Synagogoue Life Initiative.

“Too often, small synagogues feel they are immune because they’re too small to be on the radar. No one is immune,” he said.

Said Molinelli: “Security cameras are a wonderful way to assist law enforcement.”

Molinelli said that from the rabbis bedroom, he looked down to the ground and thought about the effort it took to throw the firebomb.

“What brings people to do this?” he asked.


Love and hate in Bergen County

An interview with Rabbi Nosson Schuman

Abigail Klein LeichmanCover Story
Published: 20 January 2012
A few minutes of hate give way to many days of love and support
Pessy and Nosson Schuman and their children, ranging in age from 7 to 15. Their lives could have been lost when their home was firebombed. Courtesy Rabbi Nosson Schuman

On Monday, Rabbi Nosson Schuman went shopping with his wife to buy new sheets to replace the ones scorched by a Molotov cocktail thrown through their bedroom window just before dawn on Jan. 11.

That night, he had planned to kick off a new adult-ed class on prayer in Congregation Beth El of Rutherford, the small synagogue that shares the house where he and his family have lived since August 2009. Instead, the congregants gathered to discuss the incident, which police are still puzzling over.

Less than a week later, the second-degree burns on four of his fingers were still tender. Schuman, however, had become adept at handling reporters on his Montross Avenue lawn. He had shaken hands with police officers and politicians. He had typed responses to hundreds of e-mails and Facebook messages. And he had managed to strum his guitar at an interfaith sing-along that attracted 300 VIPS, clergy, and ordinary people the Saturday night after the attack. (See accompanying article.)

The leader of a flock of fewer than 20 families probably never expected to be the center of this sort of attention. Sometimes, however, the darkest cloud can have a sterling silver lining.

“Like John Lennon said, ‘imagine,’ but this was real,” Schuman said Monday, recalling the Saturday night gathering. “There were people from all different faiths: Catholics, Protestants, the highest imam in New Jersey, Indian [Hindus], words of blessing from the archbishop of New Jersey, people of all different skin colors. Everyone was there in unity. It wasn’t a prayer service, but a night of thanksgiving and hope.”

A local pastor had suggested organizing a prayer vigil at the Orthodox synagogue, but Schuman thought that would be too sad. “I wanted to do something positive, something toward fostering unity,” he said. “I liked the idea of people coming up and sharing, and music is a beautiful way of sharing emotions.”

As interest quickly grew, Schuman kept seeking larger venues. He finally settled on the gymnasium of Felician College, after making certain there was no crucifix on the wall that might have made some Jews feel uncomfortable.

Still, he admits that playing Shlomo Carlebach tunes at a Catholic college in the company of gentiles singing church hymns (with no mention of Jesus, at his request) is not de rigueur for rabbis ordained by the “black hat” Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. Schuman, now 44, studied there for nine years after attending the University of Michigan, New York University, and Yeshiva University.

“No, it’s not common. But I’ve been an ‘out of town’ rabbi for over 13 years, and the paradigm of Judaism in Brooklyn is different than what needs to be done outside that area. Judaism is not just for Jews. We are supposed to be ‘a light unto the nations’ and tikkun olam [repairing the world] will not take place with us alone, so we must find the good in others,” said Schuman.

It also is not common for an Orthodox rabbi to feature a quotation by Mahatma Gandhi on his Facebook page (“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”) or to list The Who among his favorite musicians.

Brought up in an assimilated Queens family, Schuman arrived at college on a quest for meaning. “I felt that there was a God, and that he must have communicated with us because he didn’t create us not to have a relationship with us,” he said.

At 19, he began befriending Orthodox students at the campus Hillel and discovered there was indeed a record of divine communication: the Torah. “It contains all that we have to do to imbue our lives with meaning,” he said.

He became a pulpit rabbi because he felt he could use his secular background to “relate Judaism’s eternal values and messages” in a way that would resonate with congregants and their children regardless of their level of belief or observance.

“I try to give respect to everybody, whether Jews who don’t practice their Judaism the way I do, or anyone else. Everyone is made in the image God and was created to be beloved by God. We Jews have a unique mission with our 613 mitzvot, but it’s in conjunction with the world as whole, and we have to treat everyone as partners,” said Schuman, who recently began a master’s degree program in Jewish education and administration at Yeshiva University.

The gathering at Felician, he added, “was the vision of what we daven [pray] for on Rosh Hashanah — that all nations of the world will come together. As we get closer to the messianic era, I hope these kinds of things will get more frequent. We’ll work on more programs to foster understanding.”

He has not forgotten that the trigger for this warm get-together was an ugly incident.

The way he recalls it, an object smashed through his bedroom window, spurting flaming oil, at about 4:30 a.m. He and his wife, Pessy, were awakened by the noise.

“When I saw flames, my first instinct was to put them out, so I threw the quilt over the windowpane and luckily that worked,” he said. “Then I looked out the window and I saw three of these incendiary devices on the windowsill and realized it was a continuation of the hate crimes.” Beth El was the fourth Bergen County synagogue to be targeted by vandals since shortly before Chanukah.

“The carpet was on fire, too, but luckily I was able to get to the fire extinguisher and put it out,” he continued. He realized only later that his hands were burned.

The rabbi and his wife live in the house with their five children and Schuman’s father, and his mother-in-law was visiting at the time. They all escaped safely.

“My wife is suffering a lot of stress,” he confided. “Both of us have images of the light behind the window and the fire coming in. But I try to look at our bedroom as a place of miracles. I was able to contain the flames within a minute or two. And there were at least four other firebombs on the roof and the window ledge that didn’t detonate. So there were a lot of miracles, but it’s still a bit scary and very traumatic.”

His children, ranging in age from seven to 15, were frightened by their parents’ screams. He said the older ones “understand that there have been anti-Semitic acts throughout the ages. But this one wasn’t done by our neighbors. It was the act of a very radical minority. The great majority are showing a lot of brotherhood to the Jewish people.”

The suddenly famous rabbi reckons that “there were about 10 minutes of hate and four days [so far] of an outpouring of love and support from New Jersey and all over the country. There is much more love than hate out there, and we have more friends in the non-Jewish community than we ever realized.”


Love and hate in Bergen County

Communal meeting, interfaith gathering follow in Rutherford bombing’s wake

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 20 January 2012
Rabbi Nosson Schuman brings an interfaith service to a close with a song whose translation is, “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all!” Larry Yudelson

With the Jewish communities of Bergen County on heightened alert, some 200 religious and community leaders gathered on Jan. 12 to discuss the recent string of anti-Semitic incidents in the county with law enforcement and government officials.

The meeting followed by one day the most recent, and most serious, attack — a firebombing that could have claimed the lives of eight people. The incident targeted the old Queen Anne building in Rutherford that houses Orthodox Congregation Beth El, as well as the home of its rabbi and his family. Five of the eight potential victims were children.

The community meeting was held at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey under the joint auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Synagogue Leadership Initiative.

Two nights later — on Jan. 14, immediately following Shabbat — hundreds of people gathered in the gymnasium of a Catholic college in Rutherford to show support for Rabbi Nosson Schuman and Congregation Beth El. Schuman suffered mild burns while extinguishing the fire early Wednesday, but on Saturday night he held and strummed a guitar as he sat with his family and area clergy in an arc of folding chairs facing the packed gymnasium bleachers.

The Rutherford attack was the fourth aimed at the Jewish community since mid-December. The earlier incidents occurred at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood on Dec. 11 and the Conservative Temple Beth El in Hackensack on Dec. 21. Both involved spray-painted Nazi symbols.

On Jan. 3, a small fire was set at the Orthodox Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus. The attack on Congregation Beth El occurred one week later. All of the attacks took place in the early morning hours. All but the first occurred on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

Tension has mounted as the incidents have escalated. The Rutherford attack nearly had tragic consequences: Schuman’s family — his wife, their five children, and Schuman’s father — were asleep in the building.

Because of the use of a firebomb directed at a religious institution, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have joined local law enforcement agencies in investigating the incidents.

“I knew there were people who hated me,” Schuman told a packed press conference following last Thursday’s JCRC/SLI meeting. But, he added, he also drew solace from the outpouring of interfaith support. “What I see is the beauty of the American people,” he said.

That beauty was much in evidence Saturday evening. The program mixed the songs of the late Shlomo Carlebach with Christian hymns, and included heartfelt remarks by Christian and Muslim clergy, politicians, and residents of Rutherford. Some told The Jewish Standard that they were both shocked and insulted that hate had come to their town.

Only a small number of those within the gymnasium were wearing yarmulkes (Shabbat had ended less than a half-hour before the meeting began). Several nuns in habits, members of the Franciscan order that sponsors the college, sat in the first row of the bleachers.

Rutherford resident Joe Egan identified himself as “a lifer in this town.” He recalled playing basketball in the synagogue as a child. “We came together as kids of different faiths to just live and be ourselves,” he said, noting that he was surprised and offended that the community’s synagogue could be attacked.

Pastor Gregory Jackson of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack quoted the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The only thing that will allow the voices of evil to win is for the voices of goodness to do nothing.” King’s birthday, a national holiday, was marked on Monday.

Said Jackson, “We will not allow evil to win in our communities.”

Rabbi Noam Marans, a Bergen county resident and director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, told the gathering, “As difficult as this moment is, it’s also a moment of great pride. I’m proud of the fact that the interfaith community comes together as it always does.”

Rev. Gregory Rupright, pastor of the Rutherford Congregational Church, said, “Tonight all these faiths and all these people show that we are dedicated to justice.” He led the group in singing “Shalom Chaverim” (“Hello friends”).

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said he is “saddened by the sting of anti-Semitism” but told the gathering, “I’m going to leave tonight uplifted and with the belief that the children of light will overcome the children of darkness.”

Noting that he had fought for hate crime legislation when he served in the statehouse in Trenton, Menendez said, “I believe no law can be [as effective] as what we see tonight, a community coming together and saying, ‘We will not stand for these types of actions.’”

Addressing Rabbi Schuman, he said, “I am inspired by the way you’re reacting to it.”

There was much praise for the rabbi, as well, at the Thursday evening JCRC/SLI meeting, although the focus was more on reassuring the community.

At a post-meeting press conference, local government officials spoke of their determination to both solve the crimes and protect the Jewish communities of Bergen County. They reportedly made similar statements at the main meeting, which was closed to the media.

County Executive Kathleen Donovan told the press conference that the Office of the Bergen County Prosecutor was following some leads, but added, “That’s all that we can say” at this time.

As an immediate step, said Rep. Steve Rothman, police officials have promised to increase patrols around synagogues, although budget restraints do not allow officers to be stationed there around the clock.

“It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religion is, you’re entitled to freedom — and there is no earthly reason why this kind of hatred at this point in time should be allowed to exist,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a victim,” Lautenberg said. “We have to stand together as Americans.”

The incidents were “out of character” for Bergen County, said Rothman, adding, “We will catch these individuals and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

The press conference was an exercise in bipartisanship, as the podium was shared by Democrats Rothman (9th District) and Bill Pascrell (8th District) - who are expected to face off in a Democratic primary in June resulting from a recently announced redistricting plan - and Republican Scott Garrett (5th District).

Pascrell called the meeting “momentous,” but added that “talk is not going to solve this.” He cited the need for security equipment, such as surveillance cameras and entry card devices, and said he regretted the fact that given the current climate in Washington, there is not much federal aid available. He attributed this to the fact that conservative politicians are seeking to cut millions of dollars in federal aid.

Still, he said, that would not stop him from trying.

“The attack on the rabbi was an attack on me,” Pascrell said. “We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of our neighbors.”

Garrett, one of the Capitol’s most aggressive budget-cutters — whose share of Bergen County will increase next year to include a significant portion of Jewish enclaves such as Teaneck and Fair Lawn — called it “profoundly important” that people come together. Citing the unity displayed after the incidents, he said the JCRC/SLI meeting was not a symptom of what is wrong with the community “but what is right.”

The speakers called the firebomb attack a life-and-death escalation of the incidents.

Donovan said security measures take place on two levels. Items such as surveillance cameras, key card entry systems, and lighting are critical, she said. But she also stressed basic procedures such as locking the door and being aware of the people around you, repeating the “See something, say something” reminder that has become a post-9/11 mantra. Police welcome any bits of information, she said, no matter how trivial they may seem.

In assessing the meeting, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, JCRC chairman, said that attendees took away ideas for heightened security at their institutions, and law enforcement officials had a better understanding of the depth of concern in the Jewish community.

In his closing remarks on Saturday night, Schuman said, “Maybe this was the wake-up call we needed to work for unity.”

Leading the interfaith group in a final song - whose words are attributed to Rav Nachman of Bratislav (Breslov) – the rabbi distributed handouts with the Hebrew lyrics and translation.

Together, the group sang, “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar mi’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’facheyd k’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all!”

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