‘Proudly Jewish in light of rising hatred’: Bloomfield rabbi speaks after arson attempt

UPDATE: Bloomfield police release surveillance video of synagogue arson attempt

The rabbi of a Bloomfield synagogue targeted in an arson attack early Sunday said recent security upgrades, including a shatterproof barrier over glass, may have saved the house of worship from a worse fate after a man in a ski mask threw a Molotov cocktail at its front door.

The masked man approached Temple Ner Tamid, lit the glass bottle and tossed it at the temple at 3:19 a.m., surveillance video from the temple revealed. The bottle broke but didn’t cause damage, and the suspect then fled down the driveway.

The temple’s head of religious education arrived in the morning and found the broken glass and spilled gasoline, said Rabbi Marc Katz. The temple staff alerted police, who responded at 9:30 a.m. and reviewed surveillance video.

The Bloomfield Police Department is looking for a man who threw a Molotov cocktail at the front door of the  Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield at 3:19 a.m. on Sunday
The Bloomfield Police Department is looking for a man who threw a Molotov cocktail at the front door of the Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield at 3:19 a.m. on Sunday

“People have been on heightened alert because of this and are feeling rightfully worried about the state of antisemitism because of how prevalent it has been lately,” Katz said in an interview Sunday. “Still, I don’t think anybody ever expects their congregation is going to be attacked.”

Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation on Broad Street, has received grants from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to improve security. Among the measures, it added shatterproof barriers over the glass of the windows and doors, Katz said.

“We were able to avert the worst because the device the person was throwing didn’t make it through the front glass doors,” Katz said.

The temple, which serves 540 families, canceled Sunday activities including religious education. Around 200 children in kindergarten through grade six were expected to arrive at the school for classes. Katz was focused on helping members of the congregation process their feelings and concerns after the attack.

“There’s a new level of anxiety among my congregation because this hits closer to home than anything they’ve experienced,” the rabbi said. “My job is also to take care of them and help process this and help them talk to their kids about this and to emphasize that we remain proudly Jewish in light of rising hatred.

“If events like this erode our religious identity, then those who seek to hurt us win,” he said.

In the wake of this incident, Katz said, he celebrated that he was able to host a traditional naming ceremony for a young girl.

“I remind my congregation that every day, despite what is happening, in Jewish communities around the world, babies are named, children are educated, people are married. Our religious traditions continue. No act of hate can stop the power of religious freedom," Katz said.

The Bloomfield Police Department released a photo of the suspect taken from surveillance footage. He wore black clothing including a long sleeved shirt that appeared to have a skull and crossbones design on the front. Police said they are working with Essex County prosecutors, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate the incident. Anyone with information is asked to call the detectives at 973-680-4084 or email detectives@bloomfieldnjpd.com.

“If events like this erode our religious identity, then those who seek to hurt us win.”

Rabbi Marc Katz

New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin said his office was also working with local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies to find the suspect.

Platkin said his office is also investigating an attack on members of a predominantly Black church in Monmouth County that took place Saturday, although no further details were provided.

“We are cognizant of the fact that these attacks have occurred while violence continues to erupt in Israel, and while our own nation reckons with violence at home,” Platkin said. “I want to reassure all New Jerseyans — especially our friends and neighbors of the Black community and the Jewish faith — that law enforcement continues to take the appropriate steps to increase our presence around sensitive places so that everyone in our state can worship, love, and live without fear of violence or threat."

Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest of New Jersey, said in a statement that the incident targeting Temple Ner Tamid “comes amidst a climate of intimidation and intolerance, and a rising tide of anti-Jewish hate crimes and hate speech against Jews.”

"Our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ will continue to work with all partners in the community to stand up to hate, build our resilience, and promote safety and security," the statement said.

Elected officials also issued statements of support. Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted that he had been briefed on the attacks and wrote: "Let me be clear: there is no place for violence or hate in New Jersey and I strongly condemn these acts."

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez also wrote on Twitter that he was "horrified to hear of the attempted attack" in Bloomfield.

"I will continue working to ensure New Jersey’s synagogues and Jewish community centers have all of the resources they need to protect themselves, but to truly prevent these hateful attacks we must all work together to address the root causes of antisemitism," Menendez wrote.

Meanwhile, police are stepping up patrols, including in Livingston, which issued an alert on social media about the incident.

“We are aware of an attempted arson attack on a temple in Bloomfield NJ earlier this morning,” authorities wrote. “As a result, we have increased our patrols of our temples and will continue to do so until more information is obtained. If you see anything suspicious, please call us immediately.”

Katz said his temple had been ramping up security since white supremacists marched in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The temple has security guards and panic buttons and had boulders placed outside to prevent vehicular attacks, he said. The mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, where a gunman killed seven people, underscored the need for added security, he said.

Local incidents have also caused concern. In November, an 18-year-old man from Sayreville was charged with threatening to attack a synagogue and Jews in an online manifesto. The incident that prompted the FBI to issue a warning of "credible information" regarding a "broad threat" to temples in the state.

"We live in a society where religious institutions are under attacks and Jewish institutions all the more so," Katz said.

He is encouraging his congregation "to reflect on what brings them joy about Judaism, rather than what makes them afraid."

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Police search for man who threw Molotov cocktail at Bloomfield synagogue