‘I can’t be naive anymore’: Targeted by arson fires, Mass. rabbis face anti-Semitism at home
ARLINGTON — Luna Bukiet smelled smoke first.
It was late, sometime after 10 p.m on Saturday, May 11, the end of Shabbat. The kids were asleep. Her husband, Rabbi Avi Bukiet, was studying in his office. Luna was reading a novel on the living room couch.
Avi, Luna asked, do you smell that?
A neighborhood bonfire, perhaps? Or a nearby barbecue? Nothing to worry about. Luna headed upstairs to bed.
Nearly an hour later, the fire alarm shrieked. Avi ran out of the office. Luna woke the kids and hurried them into the car. Tendrils of dusky smoke were creeping through the floorboards. The basement was engulfed in a black, impenetrable fog.
Firefighters arrived and quickly identified the source: a 10-foot stretch of shingle siding on the Bukiets’ house was aflame.
The Bukiets’ house is not just their home; it’s the community’s only Jewish outreach center and synagogue. They relocated the Chabad Center for Jewish Life Arlington-Belmont to Lake Street two years ago, after it outgrew a small storefront on Massachusetts Avenue. Here, the Bukiets host Sabbath services, Jewish holiday celebrations, and Hebrew classes for about 200 local families.
For Avi and Luna, arson was the last thing on their minds.
But it was clear to investigators the fire had started from the outside. Their next-door neighbor had captured black-and-white surveillance footage of a stranger in a hoodie walking across their driveways.
Then, five days later, an arsonist struck the Bukiet home again. That same night, in Needham, another rabbi’s Chabad house was set on fire.
The arson fires at the Chabad houses in Arlington and Needham are part of a disturbing trend of anti-Semitic violence across the country. In April, a gunman at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego killed one person and wounded three others. That rampage occurred exactly six months after a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 and wounding six others in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.
And then there are the insidious everyday acts of anti-Semitism. Last month, a Peabody rabbi said he and another local rabbi were accosted while they were walking down Lowell Street. A man driving past in a pickup truck yelled profane, anti-Semitic slurs at them before hurling a penny out of his window.
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents ranging from vandalism and harassment to deadly assaults, recorded 1,879 attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018, a near-record level, surpassed only by the previous year (1,986 incidents) and 1994 (2,066 incidents). Massachusetts catalogued a record 177 incidents in 2017 and slightly fewer, 144, in 2018, following only the more populous states of California, New York, and New Jersey in reported incidents.
Meanwhile, hate crimes against Jews, according to the FBI’s most recent data, jumped 37 percent in 2017 to 938 incidents, up from 684 a year earlier.
“Anti-Semitism has existed for centuries,” said Robert Trestan, executive director of the ADL’s New England office. “But the difference now is that it’s becoming mainstream and I think for some people it’s suddenly becoming fashionable and acceptable to target Jews and to do so in a very open and public way.”
Federal authorities are leading the investigation into the Arlington and Needham arson fires, probing, among other questions, whether the fires are connected. An FBI spokeswoman declined to answer questions seeking updates on the cases. The state fire marshal, ADL, and Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations have offered a combined $21,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the person or people responsible.
At the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham, the fire charred a section of the house’s vinyl siding and chewed a gash into the lattice below it. Rabbi Mendy Krinsky, 47, who lives there with his wife, Chanie, 43, and five of their eight children, put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher before emergency workers arrived.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked,” Mendy Krinsky said. “It was very shocking — very, very unsettling.”
The arson fires at the Bukiets’ home last month were not their first run-ins with anti-Semitism. Within a week of opening their Massachusetts Avenue Chabad center in September 2013, a cutout of a swastika arrived in the mail with no return address. The message was clear: You’re not welcome here.
Avi, who is 32, recalled a more ambiguous incident from earlier that summer, when he and Luna, 29, were looking for a place to live in Arlington. As they were driving down a suburban street, Avi rolled down his window and asked a passerby what he thought about the neighborhood. The man, Avi said, glared at him with startling disdain and snarled, “People like you are moving down here.”
Did the man look at Avi and see another gentrifier in town? Another millennial snapping up real estate and ratcheting up costs? Or did he see Avi’s brown beard and his kippah and think, “outsider?” Avi drove away not knowing.
Although he grew up in neighboring Lexington, Avi is keenly aware of the pervasiveness and destruction anti-Semitism causes globally. In his teenage years, he went to school in a Paris suburb, where, Avi said, he routinely endured name-calling and worse. Once, an attacker shoved him down an escalator at a Paris train station. To ward off another assault, Avi had to defend himself and a friend with pepper spray. Avi has relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. His grandfather fled Nazi-occupied Poland for Shanghai when he was 15 before settling in the United States.
“I grew up with that feeling of no matter how safe you feel, no matter how much a society embraces you . . . there’s going to be that baseless hatred there,” Avi said.
Surveys show Jews are the most highly regarded religious group in the country — more popular than Catholics or Protestants — despite representing less than 2 percent of the US adult population. Most Americans are not anti-Semitic, said Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist and Jewish studies professor at Brandeis University, but today’s bigots are more emboldened than before.
Saxe pointed to a few factors that may be contributing to this uptick in anti-Semitic behavior: Record wealth inequality, he said, has provoked immense anxiety among struggling Americans and for some, Jews and immigrants are convenient scapegoats. Social media has fueled the dissemination of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For perpetrators of horrific acts of violence, the 24/7 news cycle is both a megaphone and recruiting tool for their noxious ideology.
Other researchers and civil rights groups lay the blame on President Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and migrants. It’s no coincidence, they’ve argued, that his political rise has corresponded with a spike in reported hate crimes.
“I think the president’s behavior has something to do with this,” said Matt Boxer, also a Jewish studies professor at Brandeis. “He has effectively signaled to these people who previously have been afraid to act on their bigotry in quite [as] public a manner that it’s acceptable to do so.”
Boxer cites the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, during which hordes of mostly white men, protesting plans to remove a Confederate statue, chanted, “Jews will not replace us” and other neo-Nazi slogans. Responding to the rally, President Trump remarked that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Before the arson fires, the Bukiets made a habit of leaving their doors unlocked in keeping with Chabad tradition. Also known as Chabad-Lubavitch, Chabad is a Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism that emphasizes unconditional love and acceptance above all. Any Jew seeking help, faith, or charity, they ensured, would feel welcome in their home.
Today, their house is a fortress, outfitted with security cameras and motion detectors that alert Avi and Luna’s phones when anyone sets foot on their property. A sign advertising their home security system is prominently displayed on the sidewalk in front of their elegant teal Victorian. Arlington police regularly swing by. Neighbors have volunteered to stay up at night and keep watch. The Bukiets lock their doors.
“I can’t be naive anymore,” Avi said. “I thought over here [in the United States], it was different and I have to realize, no, it’s not different. There’s going to be people that are going to treat you ill, and I need to have my eyes wide open.”
In Needham, Mendy Krinsky declined to elaborate on his home’s security measures for fear of tipping off another potential attacker.
Jeremy Yamin, associate vice president and director of security and operations at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, said anxiety about the recent surge of anti-Semitic violence here and across the country has spurred more demand among Jewish institutions for stronger security protocols. Rabbis, in particular, Yamin said, are more worried about safety than ever.
Since Nov. 1, CJP has held at least 40 security trainings and seminars for approximately 1,500 people representing dozens of Jewish organizations, including local synagogues and day schools.
“After Pittsburgh, after Poway, after the Chabad arson fires, the phones really haven’t stopped ringing,” Yamin said. “We have a hard time keeping up with requests for training and assessment.”
After the arson fires, the communities of Arlington and Needham rallied around the Bukiet and Krinsky families. The Bukiets held Shabbat services the Saturday after the second arson fire that were so packed the crowd spilled outside. The following Monday, May 20, more than 600 people flooded Arlington Town Hall for a solidarity gathering in support of the Bukiets. Gifts, cards, and flowers turned up by the hundreds on their doorstep. On Lake Street, just about every house still has a sign on the front lawn that says, “Hate has no home here.”
The response was similar in Needham. Observant Jews perform a ritual called Havdalah — Hebrew for “separation” — marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. The Saturday night following the arson fire, hundreds of neighbors gathered on the Krinskys’ front lawn to observe Havdalah with them — singing, praying, and carrying candles.
“The outpouring of love and support, that’s the real Needham. Not whoever did this, this attack on us,” Mendy Krinsky said. “As bad as the hate was, the love was many, many times more.”
In Arlington, Luna and Avi Bukiet are worried about how the arson fires will affect their three young children, ages 6, 4, and 2. Their two oldest will see a play therapist in August to address any lingering trauma.
The Bukiets always knew they’d have to teach their children about anti-Semitism, but they never guessed they’d have to do it when their children were this young. So far, Luna and Avi have reminded the children that most people are good, and they, too, should be good people, or mensches, as they say in Yiddish.
For now, this is the best they can do — unearthing a teachable moment in a maelstrom of hate.
“At the end of the day, I don't think we can do anything about anti-Semitism . . . I think it’s part of our destiny; it’s part of who we are,” Avi said. “It’s time and time again, each generation, even when you get comfortable, something happens. And it’s just the reality of what it means to be a Jew.”