Wave of vandalism hits non-Orthodox synagogues anew

Conservative and Reform communities say the perpetrators are ultra-Orthodox youth who are opposed to other streams of Judaism.

Haaretz, Israel/April 22, 2011

A Netanya Conservative and Reform house of worship has become the target of stone-throwing attacks, allegedly by ultra-Orthodox youths waging a battle to scare the congregants into leaving.

The Beit Yisrael synagogue in Netanya has been pelted with rocks on three different Friday nights in the last month. The youths reportedly hurled epithets at the synagogue parishioners, called them Gentiles and demanded that they leave the area. The rocks caused no damage, and no one has been hurt in the attacks.

The stone-throwings, which began on March 25, have occurred consistently during Sabbath evening prayers, says Morrie Kaporovsky, president of the Conservative congregation. Kaporovsky says that the first time it occurred, when he rushed down into the entrance hall to discover the cause of the banging noises he heard, he found a group of young men wearing white shirts, black pants, skullcaps and fringes.

After a repeat incident, Reform congregation director Lior Ben-Tsur elected to skip Sabbath prayers and wait in hiding close to the building's entrance with a video camera, in hopes of catching the perpetrators on tape. But when the youths returned on April 15, they noticed an LED light on his camera, Ben-Tsur says, and fled in order to avoid having their identities exposed.

"It's a 21st-century pogrom," Ben Tsur said.

The Netanya incidents are not isolated. A Reform synagogue in Ra'anana has also been attacked by vandals.

On April 13, windows were smashed and shards of glass were left strewn inside the synagogue sanctuary and the children's playground. Graffiti reading "It has begun" was sprayed on the outer wall of the building. It was the third time in less than a year that the synagogue had been attacked by vandals.

"We expect the authorities and other communities, especially the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, to use their influence to make sure that these events do not turn into a pattern that repeats itself," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel. "The ultra-Orthodox leadership needs to understand that if it is not careful with its language, using disparaging terms vis-a-vis non-Orthodox communities, their young followers will perform such acts."

Kariv says the chief rabbi of Ra'anana immediately came out against the attacks, a move not mirrored in Netanya.

The Reform congregation in Netanya prays in the bomb shelter of the Conservative Beit Yisrael synagogue, as it does not have a building of its own. Kariv says that although Netanya's city council and religious council have granted land and municipal buildings to dozens of Orthodox congregations in the city, they have consistently refused the requests of the Reform congregation.

The Netanya mayor's office did not respond to a request by Haaretz for a response.

Beit Yisrael's Rabbi Irvin Birnbaum says Netanya is resistant to providing services to non-Orthodox congregations. He says that it was only thanks to the donation of a wealthy American Jew that the Conservative community was able to purchase land and pay for construction.

He says the city council only permitted them to build the synagogue on the condition that they would also build two kindergartens on the property and gift these to the city.

Birnbaum says that Netanya Chief Rabbi David Shlush was "militantly opposed" to their efforts. When asked to comment on the wave of attacks on non-Orthodox synagogues, Shlush said he had not heard of any of these incidents, but he dismissed the legitimacy of the streams of Judaism that are practiced in those buildings.

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