The day that changed our Sacramento Jewish community

I will never forget when my phone rang at 4:00 am, Friday morning, June 18, 1999.  On the other line was a deputy sheriff from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.  He told me to go as quickly as possible to our synagogue on Sierra Blvd. as patrol cars will be on the premises.  He shared with me that three synagogues were burning.  Congregation B’nai Israel on Riverside Blvd. was set ablaze, as was Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael and Kenesset Israel Torah Center on Morse Ave.  My first thought was, “How do I explain this unspeakable act to the children of my congregation?”  “Could this be another Kristallnacht?”  While the damage to the three synagogues was estimated to be more than $1 million, the emotional impact of the attacks was much greater.

Three days after the synagogue arsons, more than 5,000 people gathered at Sacramento’s Community Center Theatre in solidarity with the Jewish community.  Leaders from all faith groups sat together on the stage with a unified message:   Sacramento United Against Hate.  The Sacramento Bee published a full page insert with the words “Sacramento Together United We Stand” and “Chai,” the Hebrew word for life, encouraging readers to display it in the windows of their homes and businesses.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated by organizations, faith groups and people from all over the country to help the three congregations to rebuild.  The Unity Center was born with the leadership of then California Senate Leader and current Sacramento Mayor, Darrell Steinberg.  After the arsons, our synagogue leadership immediately devised new security measures, including installing a wrought iron fence and security cameras around the perimeter of our campus.  Days after the firebombing, The FBI invited leaders of the Jewish community to a press conference and briefing.  Agents quickly uncovered two suspects, brothers, who had connections with two nationally known hate groups, the World Church of the Creator and Aryan Nations. I recall over the years receiving hate messages on my voice mail from the former hate group.  The FBI informed us that a “hit list” had been found with many names of Jews on the list. A deputy’s patrol car was parked in front of my and other Jewish leaders’ homes for several weeks.

The fires were considered among the worst acts of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. The two brothers were arrested and pleaded guilty to the arsons, along with a later firebombing of an abortion clinic and murder of a gay couple. June 18, 1999 was a watershed moment for our Sacramento Jewish community.

Fast forward to October, 2018 and April, 2019.  A synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA was attacked by a gunman who murdered 11 Jews and wounded 6 other people.  And on the last day of Passover at another synagogue in Poway, near San Diego, a gunman murdered one Jew and wounded three others, including the rabbi.  Those synagogue shootings have impacted Jews in every city, town and community in the country.  Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have implemented more security precautions.  We thought that we were immune from the kind of anti-Semitism which has become widespread in Europe.  But the facts are that the Jewish community in the United States has experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism.

Former ADL Director Abraham Foxman (who traveled from NY to Sacramento to speak at our community gathering of solidarity after the arsons) once said that “There used to be a joke: where there’s life, there’s bugs. Well, where there’s life, there’s prejudice. And anti-Semitism is the mother of all prejudices. It’s always been there. What has changed is its perception, its acceptance. While many of us have struggled to combat it, we understood that we’re not going to eliminate it unless we find a vaccine and an antidote.” 

“The mother of all prejudices.”  That explains why Jews have always been called the “canary in the coal mine.” Miners used to take canaries into the mines with them because the canary would die from coal gas escaping into the mine shaft before the level of gas could kill the men or become explosive. When the canary stops singing, it is a warning to the miners to get out of the mine. How is that a metaphor for the Jews?  Underlying the metaphor is the realization that what happens to the Jews will befall everyone.  I wish I could discover that vaccine and antidote to anti-Semitism.  I am afraid that it is already too ingrained in our society.

Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who in a speech in 2016 to the European Parliament said, “No society that has fostered anti-Semitism has ever sustained liberty or human rights or religious freedom. Every society driven by hate begins by seeking to destroy its enemies, but ends by destroying itself.” 

Tomorrow night at Congregation B’nai Israel, our Jewish community will gather to mark the 20th Anniversary of the synagogue fire bombings.  There will be speeches by rabbis and civic leaders and the message will be a unified one:   If the United States is not safe for Jews, then the very future of America – and indeed the civilized world – is in real danger.

But will that message not only be heard, but transformed into action? When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, will people stand up and speak out against this hatred?  Or will they say, “Oh it is only a few extremists who are the perpetrators.”  When the Nazis established many new anti-Jewish laws, those laws were introduced slowly at first, so that the civilian population would not realize the extent of the anti-Semitism.

Three synagogues were torched twenty years ago here in Sacramento.  Within the last eight months, two synagogues were attacked by gunmen who murdered and wounded Jews. Let’s not wait for the next shattering event to begin the conversation on how to mobilize the troops to respond to hatred towards Jews. Our children’s future and the future of our country depends on it.

About the Author
Reuven Taff has served as the rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California since 1995. A trained Hazzan and Educator, he served as Cantor and Educational Director of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, Arizona and Headmaster of Gesher Jewish Day School of Northern Virginia. He can be contacted at rabbi@mosaiclaw.org.
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