Federal prosecutors are now heading up the investigation into three recent arson fires at Jewish centers in Arlington and Needham that shocked both towns and prompted a massive solidarity rally Monday night.
“The US Attorney is the lead on this investigation,” said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fire Services, via e-mail, adding that “the investigation continues apace with sizable resources.”
The FBI and US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling’s office both declined to comment Tuesday.
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 Thursday, while another fire was intentionally set at the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham about one hour later Thursday night, state investigators said.
Police officials said Friday that they’re trying to determine whether the fires in both communities are connected. Authorities last week released video surveillance footage of a suspicious person walking from the scene of the first Arlington blaze.
Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey’s office last week described the Arlington fires as “arson fires” and said the Needham blaze was “intentionally set.” All three fires were quickly put out.
Supporters of the targeted centers packed a solidarity gathering Monday night at Arlington Town Hall. In a Twitter message, Arlington police posted photos of the capacity crowd.
“There is a full room at Arlington Town Hall tonight, showing the strength and unity of the community, in response to the recent fires at the home of a Rabbi,” police tweeted.
The Police Department’s comments were echoed by Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office, who spoke at the rally and later tweeted out a defiant message against bigotry.
“In [the] aftermath of three arson attacks on the Jewish community in #Arlington & #Needham,” he wrote, “we will not back down. We will not be silenced. We will not go away. We will not be intimidated. #antisemitism will never defeat us.”
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 shooting at a temple in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshipers. The ADL recently released its Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, which counted 144 incidents in Massachusetts in 2018. That’s the second highest on record, surpassed only by 2017 when there were 177.
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 on its website as “a place where Judaism is celebrated joyfully and meaningfully, where Judaism sheds relevant perspective to our daily lives.”
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.”
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 persevere with their help, and with God’s help.”
Rabbi Mendy Krinsky of the Needham Chabad center said last week 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. He added: “We’re not going to be deterred.”