Sacramento recalls 1999 synagogue firebombings by white supremacist brothers

06/18/2014 12:00 AM

06/17/2014 8:39 PM

Wednesday night, Jews, Muslims and Christians will gather at Congregation B’nai Israel in Land Park to remember one of the most heinous events in Sacramento history – the predawn firebombing of three Sacramento synagogues.

Exactly 15 years ago, on Friday, June 18, 1999, two white supremacist brothers, Benjamin Matthew Williams and his younger brother Tyler, set fires at B’nai Israel, Congregation Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, causing nearly $3 million in damage.

The blazes, among the worst acts of anti-Semitism in U.S. history, were followed by the firebombing of an abortion clinic and the murders of a gay couple – Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder – while they slept in their Happy Valley home in rural Shasta County. The brothers pleaded guilty to the slayings, claiming that homosexuality is a sin they had to stamp out.

In November 2002, Benjamin Matthew Williams committed suicide in the Shasta County jail. Tyler Williams is serving a 50 years to life sentence for the firebombing and the murders.

In response, Sacramento community rallied, coming together by the thousands to support its Jewish and gay residents. The night of the firebombings, city leaders arranged for B’Nai Israel, which sustained the worst damage, to hold Friday services at the downtown Community Center. On the following Monday night, 4,500 people packed the Sacramento Convention Center.

“There were religious leaders of every single faith in Sacramento on stage, with leaders from different organizations, law enforcement agencies and city, county and state government, ” recalled Rabbi Mona Alfi of B’nai Israel. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in my life. I fell utterly in love with this town. It was an act of love that far outweighed the hatred the Williams brother had unleashed.”

Wednesday night’s gathering will evoke that event with a lineup of speakers from different faiths and the showing of a documentary on the 1994 burning of a Yuba City mosque.

Alfi praised the response from police and fire officials, “who made us feel safe.” And she said she will never forget the full-page ad published by The Sacramento Bee that read, “Sacramento Together, United We Stand” with two giant Hebrew letters spelling out Chai, which means “life.” Thousands of Sacramentans cut out the page and stuck it in their front windows, “and for months afterward I’d still see them in nearly every window,” Alfi said.

The ad and the broad response were “a testimony to our community which came together as one,” recalled Lou Anapolsky, then president of B’Nai Israel. “This was not perceived as an attack on the Jewish community, it was perceived on an attack on all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of Sacramento.”

Congregation B’Nai Israel, founded in 1849, is the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi. The 3:30 a.m. blaze destroyed the library that contained about 6,000 volumes, many of them holy books passed down through generations, Anapolsky said.

“I saw the flames coming out of the roof of the library,” said Anapolsky, who arrived shortly after 4 a.m. “It was amazing to see this burning in front of me, the place where I grew up and had my bar mitvah and named my children,” Anapolsky said. When he entered the sanctuary, he was engulfed by a wave of black smoke.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a longtime member of B’nai Israel, where his wife serves as a cantor, said Wednesday night’s event, “15 Years Later: A Night to Look Back – A Night to Plan Ahead,” serves as an important reminder “the work is never done, because hatred and bigotry still exists in this country and the world. And that’s why we continue to be vigilant and support one another.”

Sacramento’s reputation for multiculturalism was born that night at the Convention Center 15 years ago, Steinberg said. “Any time the community is victimized in big or small ways, whether its Sikhs, Japanese Americans, Muslims, African Americans, the gay and lesbian community, we stand together.”

The firebombings and murders also gave birth to the Sacramento Unity Council, an influential group of ethnic and religious leaders who raised more than $1 million to fund school programs and videos celebrating courage and diversity.

Though the Unity Center never got its own building, Steinberg said he was able to get in the current state budget $2 million a year for the California Museum, where the Unity Center’s interactive programs and exhibits can find a home. The new incarnation will be built around the stories of California immigrants and their struggles, challenges and victories, Steinberg said.

Wednesday night’s scheduled speakers include Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez of Salam Islamic Center, the Right Rev. Brian Baker of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and Pastor Rick Cole of Capital Christian Center. B’Nai Israel will also screen “An American Mosque,” David Washburn’s documentary on the 1994 destruction of a new mosque in Yuba City. Arsonists doused prayer rugs with gas and reduced the mosque to a pile of ashes, Washburn said.

The free program at 3600 Riverside Blvd. begins at 6 p.m. with refreshments, and the event is at 6:45. For more information, call (916) 446-4861.

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