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New York Teen Charged in Synagogue Fire

It's still unclear if anti-Semitism had a hand in the crime's motivation.

by Drew Schwartz
May 17 2017, 5:16pm

Photo by Jefferson Siegel/NY Daily News via Getty Images

A blaze tore through a historic synagogue in Lower Manhattan Sunday, engulfing the 167-year-old building in flames and reducing much of it to rubble. Though it's unclear exactly what started the fire and why it was set, cops say a teenager is responsible, the New York Post reports.

Police arrested and charged a 14-year-old boy with felony arson on Tuesday, tracking him down after reviewing security footage of three kids fleeing the scene shortly after the fire broke out. The boy, who's remaining unnamed because he's a minor, reportedly lived nearby the abandoned building. Authorities are still investigating how and why the fire was started, but on Tuesday, they determined it was likely intentional.

Holly Kaye, who's fought to preserve the synagogue, told the Post folks had been climbing up the building's fire escape recently, and that the incident might have more to do with teenage negligence than anti-Semitism.

"It seems like it was malicious nonsense from kids playing around," she told the Post. "It's just devastating. There's no other way to put it."

The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue was built in the 1850s and began housing a congregation of Russian Jews in 1885—making it the oldest such parish in the US, according to the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. Amid threats to demolish it, a city officially named it a landmark in 1967. It closed in 2007 when the dwindling congregation moved out, and Kaye—who leads the conservancy—has been leading an effort to reopen it ever since.

"We were all set," the temple's rabbi, Mendel Greenbaum, told the Post. "A developer was going to come and renovate the synagogue and everything."

Though it's unclear what motivated the alleged arson, the US has seen a sharp uptick in anti-Semitic crimes over the past few months. A few major crime waves of bomb threats and vandalism targeted Jewish schools, community centers, and cemeteries across the country in January and February. New York City has been hit particularly hard, recording at least 35 anti-Semitic hate crimes by the end of February, a 94 percent increase across the same time period the year before.

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Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue