5 years after arson, Sacramento synagogues still healing

It was an emotionally charged Shabbat service a few weeks ago at Congregation B’nai Israel, with family members of two murdered men and law enforcement officials in attendance.

That was how the Reform synagogue in Sacramento chose to mark the fifth anniversary of its firebombing by white supremacists.

Sacramento’s Orthodox shul, Kenesset Israel Torah Center, commemorated the occasion by pouring cement.

June 18, 1999, is the date Benjamin Matthew Williams and his younger brother James Tyler Williams firebombed the two Sacramento synagogues, along with Reform Congregation Beth Shalom in neighboring Carmichael.

The brothers then firebombed an abortion clinic. And then they murdered a Redding-area gay couple, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, as they slept.

While the damage to the three synagogues was calculated to be more than $1 million, the emotional impact of the attacks was much greater.

“Was this another Kristallnacht?” B’nai Israel congregant Alan Cantan asked in the Jewish Bulletin in 1999. “Why do they still hate us so much?”

But at the same time, the Jewish community was buoyed by an outpouring of support from all over the world.

A massive rally took place, clergy of all faiths showed their support, the Sacramento Bee printed a large chai that people placed in their windows and donations began pouring in.

“They demonstrated just how a community should react to these sorts of things,” said Jonathan Bernstein, executive director of the Central Pacific region of the Anti-Defamation League.

Everyone from the Oakland Athletics to actor Paul Newman sent checks. B’nai mitzvah students donated books to B’nai Israel, which lost the entire contents of its Sosnick library. The Unity Fund, set up by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, collected close to $600,000. The money was divided among the three synagogues, with B’nai Israel getting 54 percent, Kenesset Israel 36 percent and Beth Shalom 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the Williams brothers — who were from Palo Cedro, near Redding — were arrested six days after the murder. In 1999, they both plead guilty to the firebombings. The elder Williams received 30 years and the younger, 21 years. In 2002, the elder Williams committed suicide in his jail cell. In 2003, the younger Williams received another 29 years for the murders.

Although the damage at the Orthodox shul, Kenesset Israel, was initially estimated at $30,000, that figure was way off, as the building was deemed completely unusable.

Its leadership decided to start from scratch.

In August 2002, after having raised about $400,000, half of which came from the Unity Fund, Kenesset Israel held a groundbreaking ceremony on its new site.

And on Thursday, June 10, the cement was poured that will form the foundation of the new building.

“People just wrung their hands and said they couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Steven Haberfeld, the member in charge of the rebuilding effort.

Kenesset Israel has raised an additional $500,000 from its 65 member families, friends and foundations. And much of the labor is being donated, like that of SD Deacon Corp., which just poured the first slab of cement.

“This is unique, and we’re glad it is,” said Deacon’s vice president of business development, Paul Cunha. “None of us ever want to see something like this happen with any religious facility.”

At least 10 different companies, from construction to electrical to engineering to plumbing, have either offered their services or have pledged to, many at the behest of Deacon, which uses them as subcontractors.

While members are grateful for all the donated or discounted labor and materials, the synagogue still has a long way to go. Bricks are for sale on its Web site — www.KITCsacramento.org — for $100 and large stones for $500, which will be inscribed with donors’ names.

An Israeli firm is donating the Jerusalem stone for the building’s fa├žade, and another Israeli company is shipping the stone at no cost.

Meanwhile, at Congregation B’nai Israel, a special service was held last month to commemorate the occasion.

Paul Seave, a member of the synagogue, was an attorney in the office that prosecuted the Williams brothers. When he joined the state attorney general’s office a few years back, one of his new colleagues was Nancy Matson, the wife of a brother of Gary Matson. The family members of the two men were invited to synagogue.

“We weren’t there to celebrate our survival; we’ve done that enough,” said Seave. “But we wanted to help the other people with whom we’re tied, both by the murders and their respective status in the world as outsiders.”

The Shabbat service was dedicated to the memory of the two murdered men, and the sanctuary was filled with synagogue members, at least 10 members of the men’s families, and elected officials, members of the police and FBI, said Seave.

“One of the many noteworthy things was that the two families had really only met once before, a month before the murders,” said Seave.

In regard to its library, B’nai Israel rebuilt it in the year following the fire. Most of its new collection was donated.

At Carmichael’s Congregation Beth Shalom, the third synagogue to suffer damage five years ago, a representative was unable to return j.’s calls by press time.

One of the more positive outcomes of the arson has been the Capital Unity Council. Proposed by B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Brad Bloom, the idea had instant community support in a city that has a higher rate of hate crimes than the state’s average.

Its goal is to build what will be called the California Unity Center. A warehouse owned by the Sacramento school board across the street from the Capitol is about to be leased.

Darrell Steinberg, a state assemblyman (D-Sacramento) who is president of the council’s board, said that he’s working with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to secure funding.

“The fact is 60,000 kids come to this Capitol every year, and this is an opportunity to affect hearts and minds,” Steinberg said.

Although he couldn’t make any projections as to when the center would open, he said that “five years later, we’re at a very key stage of accomplishing what we set out to do.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."