Two weeks after Rabbi Matt Friedman agreed to take a job at Congregation Beth Shalom in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, the Bay Area native answered a phone call from his father, who said, “Your synagogue is on fire.”
It was June 18, 1999.
The stunned rabbi learned that the Reform congregation was one of three Sacramento-area synagogues firebombed the night before by white supremacist brothers Benjamin Matthew and James Tyler Williams. The other two were Reform Congregation B’nai Israel and Modern Orthodox Kenesset Israel Torah Center.
Twenty years later, all three synagogues remain forever linked to that act of terror, which received widespread national attention as one of the worst acts of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. At that time, at least.
Because the firebombings happened in the middle of the night, no one from any of the synagogues was harmed. However, a gay couple — Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder — were murdered while they slept in their Shasta County home, and an abortion clinic was firebombed during the same crime spree.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks, and multiple events will be staged in commemoration under the title “Remembrance and Resilience.” The aim is to bring the Jewish and greater community together, at the three affected synagogues and at the Unity Center of the California Museum.
A 6 p.m. Shabbat service at Beth Shalom on June 14 and a Shabbat lunch at Kenesset Israel at 12 p.m. Saturday, June 15 will kick things off, but probably the biggest event will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 18: a community-wide commemoration at B’nai Israel, 3600 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento. For details, visit the website of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region at jewishsac.org.
Later in the week, the Unity Center one block from the state Capitol will hold “Stand Up for Unity in Our Community” on June 22 and 23. There will be free admission to all current exhibits, hands-on social justice activities and the screening of several films, including the 2000 documentary “Summer of Hate, Season of Healing.” For details, visit .
The June 18 event at B’nai Israel will include speeches by U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, lead prosecutor on the Williams’ brother case, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former state legislator who wanted to create a tolerance center following the 1999 “summer of hate” (as it became known) and then helped usher it into fruition after the project stalled a decade ago to the recession.
“I remember the approximate words I said two days later when thousands gathered at the Convention Center, people of all faiths and backgrounds, vowing that this cannot happen again in our city and we will dedicate ourselves to this mission,” Steinberg recalled. “I asked myself, ‘How do we take the feelings we have in this moment and make this a permanent commitment to fight hate and intolerance?’”
Though the idea for the center was “initiated in 1999” according to its web page, the Unity Center didn’t open its doors until August 2017.
B’nai Israel Rabbi Mona Alfi, who has served that congregation for 21 years, can’t overstate the impact of the both the firebombings and the solidarity two days later.
“This incident shaped my rabbinate more than anything else in my life,” she said. “The solidarity gathering was one of the most awesome, inspirational moments I ever experienced.”
Louis Anapolsky, B’nai Israel president in 1999, remembers the victim impact statement he prepared that was presented to the court in 2001 in the case of United States v. Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams.
“Your attack on Congregation B’nai Israel and the other two synagogues was not just an attack on the Jewish community; this was an attack on the entire Sacramento community,” Anapolsky wrote. Referring to the gathering, he continued, “We stood shoulder-to-shoulder, regardless of race or religion, in unified defiance of your hate crimes, and sent a singular message to you and those that espouse your brand of hatred: Not in our house. Your blind hatred and bigotry will not be tolerated. Not in our house. Not now or ever.”
In 2001, Matthew (the brothers were known by their middle names) was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for planning and organizing the attacks, while his brother Tyler got 21¼ years for his role. In addition, they were ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution to the synagogues and abortion clinic they targeted (the Sacramento Bee estimated the financial loss to the synagogues at $3 million).
In late 2002, Matthew was found dead in his prison cell, reportedly due to a suicide. Some five months later, Tyler pleaded guilty to the two murders and received a sentence of an additional 29 years to life.
For the synagogues, a sense of healing was experienced not as much through the justice system as it was through unity and community. For example, during three years of rebuilding, Kenesset Israel organized more than 30 Sunday work parties where as many as 50 volunteers showed up.
“What few people realize,” said Steven Haberfeld, Kenesset Israel president in 1999, “is that we received substantial help from the fundamentalist Christian community. Most of the subcontractors, the roofers, electricians, the stonemasons, the plumbers, etc. were Christians who were genuinely pleased to join us in building a new Orthodox Jewish synagogue.”
Still, the scars from 20 years ago run deep. For Jana Uslan, incoming president of Beth Shalom in 1999, the passing of time hasn’t done much to allay her fears.
“Two decades later, we continue to upgrade our security plan,” she said of the temple. “We have armed guards protecting us during services; we have cameras inside and out to make sure we can look back if necessary. As I pray during a Friday night service, my eyes are always on who is walking in the door. Do we know them? Do they know us? When it comes to hate crimes, I pray we have already had our turn.”