June 24th, 2024

Rabbi says members of Vancouver synagogue were inside during arson attack

By Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press on May 31, 2024.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver says an "incendiary device" was thrown at the front doors of a synagogue and police are investigating. A Vancouver Police Department patch is seen on an officer's uniform in Vancouver, on Jan. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt said people were inside the Schara Tzedeck synagogue on Vancouver’s Oak Street after services around 9:20 p.m. on Thursday when they heard a “bang” outside.

But it was a passerby who alerted them that their building was on fire, before a member of the synagogue put out the flames with his jacket, said Rosenblatt while pointing to the scorched front door on Friday morning.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver said the fire was an arson attack, caused “by an individual who poured fuel on the front doors and set them on fire.”

It earlier said the damage was due to an “incendiary device.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the attack a “disgusting act of antisemitism.”

Vancouver police said the case was being investigated as an act of arson and a possible hate crime.

There was a strong smell of burning inside the synagogue Friday, but the charring did not appear to have made it far inside the front doors.

“We’re glad we didn’t wake up to a pile of ashes,” Rosenblatt said outside the building.

He said he was told the flames reached the second storey of the synagogue before being put out.

Rosenblatt said he was struck that there was no attempt to make the attack “clandestine.”

“Somebody decided it was OK to just walk up these stairs,” he said. “You could have picked a spot on the back of the synagogue.”

He said the attack showed there was a “new permission structure” about how Jewish people were treated in Canada.

“My grandfather was the cantor of a synagogue that burned down on Kristallnacht,” he said, referring to the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany.

“I thought he was the last rabbi in our family to have to deal with a synagogue that was going to be torched. I guess I was mistaken.”

The federation said in a statement posted online that the damage to Schara Tzedeck synagogue was minor and no one was hurt.

It called the incident a “deliberate act of hate” and an “attempt to intimidate” the Jewish community.

Trudeau said on social media platform X: “A synagogue in Vancouver was attacked last night in another disgusting act of antisemitism. We cannot let this hate or these acts of violence stand. This is not the Canada we want to be.”

Canada’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, Deborah Lyons, called it “horrible news” and said on social media that “incendiary rhetoric leads to incendiary violence.”

The Jewish federation said the Vancouver Police Department and a fire inspector searched the building before declaring it safe to be reopened.

Vancouver police said in a statement that authorities have “mobilized additional officers to Jewish community centres, schools, and religious institutions.”

“This fire was intentionally set at a place of worship for the Jewish community,” Const. Tania Visintin said in a statement. “While we collect evidence to identify the person responsible, we’re also working closely with faith leaders and community members to ensure everyone’s safety.”

She added: “We’re doing everything in our power to solve this crime, while providing reassurance, comfort, and safety to the community.”

A police car and officers were outside the synagogue on Friday morning.

The federation said extra police patrols were being put in place at local Jewish institutions.

The incident comes after bullet holes were found at two Jewish schools in Montreal and Toronto in recent days. Nobody was hurt in either incident.

Lyons said on social media that it is “past time to stand up” against the incidents.

“Three Jewish institutions in three major cities this week have been attacked, and more over the months since Hamas’s horrific massacre on Oct. 7. There is no excuse for silence or inaction,” she said.

She said the law must be enforced and “incidents of hate” could not go unanswered.

“It means that incitement and violent rhetoric must be met with consequences. It means that capitulation to unreasonable or threatening demands must end.”

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, an outspoken voice against antisemitism, called on his party to change the Criminal Code in response to the rash of violent incidents targeting Jewish gathering places.

“At this point, condemnation is not enough,” Housefather said in a speech to the House of Commons Friday, citing the incidents in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

“All levels of government need to do more, immediately.”

He suggested creating safe zones around schools and places of worship where protests are not allowed, just as the government did for hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The idea was also floated in Toronto months ago by a local city councillor.

Housefather also called for the group Samidoun and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military, to be labelled as terrorist groups.

The foreign affairs minister has asked Public Safety Canada to explore the possibility of listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization, but Trudeau raised concerns it would punish Canadians who were drafted into Iran’s military by force.

Housefather’s comments were met with a standing ovation in the House.

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement saying it was “appalled by last night’s violent attack against a Vancouver synagogue.”

“This marks the third such incident in the past six days in Canada, following shootings at Jewish schools in Toronto and Montreal. This comes as the country continues to experience surging anti-Jewish incidents since the Hamas atrocities in Israel last October.”

“Absolutely appalled by last night’s violent attack against a Vancouver synagogue,” centre president Michael Levitt said on X, adding, “when is enough, enough?”

B.C. Premier David Eby issued a statement condemning the incident, which he described as an “arson attack.”

“This disguising act of antisemitism is reprehensible (and) has absolutely no place in B.C.,” the statement said, adding Eby was relieved to hear no one was hurt.

Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed said on X that he was “furious” to hear about the incident in his riding, which encompasses the synagogue.

“There is no justification for a synagogue to be attacked. None,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2024.

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