‘Can’t let your guard down.’ Sacramento synagogue marks 20 years since firebombings

This week marks 20 years since three Sacramento synagogues were set ablaze by two white supremacists, and the Jewish community hasn’t forgotten.

Hundreds of people filled Congregation B’nai Israel in Land Park on Tuesday night to commemorate the anniversary of the June 1999 firebombing attacks on B’nai Israel, Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael and the Kenesset Israel Torah Center in Arden Arcade.

Several speakers, including Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, solemnly recalled the attacks, which were followed by the torching of an abortion clinic and murder of a gay couple in Shasta County.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the same terrorists who attacked the Jewish community torched Sacramento’s Planned Parenthood Center in the middle of the night,” Congregation B’nai Israel rabbi Mona Alfi told the crowded room. “And it is heartbreaking that to realize that it has been 20 years since the two white supremacist brothers, who were so blinded by their hatred of anyone who was different from them, felt that they had the right to murder Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder.”

Benjamin Matthew Williams and his younger brother Tyler pleaded guilty to the slayings. Benjamin Williams committed suicide in the Shasta County jail in 2002. Tyler Williams was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for the murders and firebombings, which caused nearly $3 million in damage.

Speakers at B’nai Israel on Tuesday recalled the overwhelmingly positive community response and how 4,500 people packed the Sacramento Convention Center to support one another in the following days.

But the speeches, which were given in one of fire-ravaged rooms, also contained reminders about the continued shadow of anti-Semitism since the firebombings, with several citing synagogue shootings, such as the October attack in Pittsburgh that killed 11 and an April ambush that killed one in Poway, near San Diego.

“No one is naive enough to believe anti-Semitism has gone away,” Steinberg said to a stone-faced audience.

Congregation B’nai Israel, the oldest synagogue in the West, suffered the most damage from the fires, The Sacramento Bee previously reported. Its library, containing nearly 6,000 books, was completely destroyed.

Hope Rabinovitz, the incoming president at the time, said the synagogue received over $1 million in donations to rebuild the library. By March the following year, they were able to return to the main room for services.

Rabinovitz attributes the fire at B’nai Israel in part to a lack of vigilance, explaining that the temple is very visible and previously wasn’t fenced. After the attack, she said, security was increased — and is still evolving to this day.

The synagogue recently received $150,000 in grants from the Department of Homeland Security to beef up its protection, Rabinovitz said.

“You just can’t let your guard down,” she said, adding that it’s possible for the temple to be a target again.

To the effect of Rabinovitz’s words, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, Sacramento Police Department and Sacramento Fire Departments were in attendance Tuesday. Multiple police officers lined entrances, and a fire engine was parked out front.

Brian Uslan, vice president for Congregation Beth Shalom, said he and his wife were the first synagogue members on the scene of the Carmichael fire two decades ago. The scariest part though, he said, was the two weeks after the attack when the arsonists hadn’t been caught yet.

“We were wondering ‘should we go and spend the night at the temple?’ ” he said.

Twenty years later, Uslan said he feels both “appreciative and apprehensive,” describing the strength of the Jewish community but also acknowledging that anti-Semitic crimes have increased since the 1999 attack.

Seth Brisk, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said the increase in Jewish hate crimes is “shocking but not surprising.” He encouraged the crowd to speak up when they see discrimination happening.

“America is no place for hate,” Brisk said.

Several vocal groups also performed, including the Gay Men’s Choir; and two members of Matson’s family lit a candle in his remembrance.

Alfi ended the night with a call to action.

“This concludes the evening,” she said. “But it doesn’t conclude the work that needs to be done.”

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.