Authorities are investigating whether three acts of arson at Jewish institutions in Arlington and Needham within the past week are related, in what appear to be the latest in a troubling string of anti-Semitic incidents around the United States and world that have drawn widespread condemnation.
The home of Rabbi Avi Bukiet at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life Arlington-Belmont in Arlington was targeted by an arsonist on May 11 and again on Thursday, while another fire was intentionally set at the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham about one hour later Thursday night, officials said.
All three were quickly extinguished, and state Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey’s office described them as “arson fires.”
The Arlington fires targeted “not just a Jewish center” but also “our personal family,” Bukiet said at a news conference Friday with his wife, Luna, local officials, and leaders of the local Jewish community. Acknowledging that “we are hurting,” Bukiet said his family is heartened by the support they have received, has no plans to move, and vowed not to be intimidated.
“It just shows us that we are in a community where we want to stay, where we plan on staying, and where we plan on thriving,” Bukiet said. “We will forever hold that message up to the community around us. We will persevere with their help, and with God’s help.”
Rabbi Mendy Krinsky of the Needham Chabad center said that while damage from the fire Thursday night was minimal, the incident was “very concerning.” His wife, Chanie, said in a post on Facebook that she “woke my kids and jumped into the car” to keep them warm and protected.
As in Arlington, the Needham Chabad received an “unbelievable outpouring of love and support from all directions,” Krinsky said, and he added: “We’re not going to be deterred.”
The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England sent a notice on the eve of Shabbat Friday suggesting Jewish institutions “take added precautions and exhibit a high degree of vigilance.”
“Attacking any place of worship is a despicable act, but since these buildings are also family homes where children live, eat, and play, we consider the apparent attacks to be extremely serious,” Robert Trestan said in his letter.
Appearing at the news conference, Trestan said the ADL has contributed toward the $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for the fires.
Anti-Semitic violence has been rising sharply over the past several years, a disturbing trend that includes the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the United States ever, the October 2018 shooting at a temple in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshipers. Earlier this month the ADL released its Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents that counted 144 incidents in Massachusetts in 2018, the second highest on record, surpassed only by 2017 when there were 177.
The first fire started around 11 p.m. last Saturday at the rear of the Arlington center, which houses the Bukiet family and hosts Hebrew classes and religious services. Acting Arlington Police Chief Julie Flaherty said the small fire was quickly extinguished, but a second one broke out at the rear of the residence around 9 p.m. Thursday. Flaherty said an officer used a fire extinguisher to put that one out, limiting the damage to an exterior shingle.
Flaherty said police have released video footage of a suspicious person leaving the area Saturday and urged anyone with information about the case to contact law enforcement.
The fire at the Needham Chabad center broke out not much later Thursday night, and Ostroskey’s office said that blaze was “intentionally set.” Needham police Chief John Schlittler said his officers and Arlington police are reviewing whether the fires are connected.
Chabad houses are the center of religious and social life of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. The Chabad Center for Jewish Life Arlington-Belmont describes itself as “a place where Judaism is celebrated joyfully and meaningfully, where Judaism sheds relevant perspective to our daily lives,” according to its website.
The Chabad Jewish Center in Needham has worshipers from suburban communities including Needham, Dedham, Dover, and Westwood, and says on its website that it is “dedicated to serving the Jewish community with Ahavas Yisroel — an unconditional love and concern for every Jew, regardless of age, background, affiliation, or level of observance.”