10 years on, Katrina echoes for Mississippi Jews

Standing on an empty lot at the corner of Camellia Street and Southern Avenue, Brad Kessie wistfully inspected one of two sago palms that marked the pathway to Congregation Beth Israel, which had stood here for nearly five decades before Hurricane Katrina struck 10 years ago this month.

The circular, two-story brick building’s framework and sanctuary survived the storm, although devastating winds ripped apart its roof and facade. The synagogue in this coastal city of roughly 45,000 was razed in 2008, but a “For Sale” sign remains on the property.

“Know anyone looking to buy?” said Kessie, 49, a longtime congregant and the synagogue’s president. He can afford that sort of wry humor; the Jewish community here is still standing, even if its original home is not.

Jewish settlement in Mississippi dates back to the mid-19th century, when Central and Eastern European merchants arrived in the city of Natchez — the so-called “Antebellum Capital of the World” — and began selling dry goods to local farmers. Jews made their way south to Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport around the same time, but no congregation formed until Beth Israel did so in 1953. Members erected the synagogue five years later less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, the first along the 145-mile stretch of coast between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and the only Conservative congregation in the state.

Brad Kessie signing the Congregation Beth Israel foundation at a groundbreaking ceremony, October 2008. Photo from Congregation Beth Israel

In 2005, Beth Israel served about 100 people from Biloxi and Gulfport (total population 71,000) — less than 10 percent of the state’s roughly 1,500 Jews, the majority of whom live 170 miles north in the capital city of Jackson. Rabbi Akiva Hall, 25, the Chabad emissary in Gulfport, grew up in nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and attended Beth Israel as a teenager.

“It seemed to me to be an active community,” Hall told JTA in an email. “I had some wonderful experiences there.”

Thirteen of Beth Israel’s 65 or so families saw their homes destroyed when Katrina slammed Mississippi’s shores on Aug. 29, 2005. Nearly all were displaced. Kessie, an on-camera reporter at the local WLOX-TV at the time of the storm — he’s now the news director at the station — recalled Biloxi as a sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Many of the coastal highway’s boardwalks, restaurants, Civil War-era homes and casinos, mainstays of the region’s tourism industry, were severely damaged. Debris was scattered across the white-sand beachfront. The storm claimed 238 lives in Mississippi.

Like most area residents, the Jews here were traumatized, said Noah Farkas, who visited the devastated congregation more than 50 times between 2006 and 2008, when he was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“You could set someone off very easily,” said Farkas, now the rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino, California. “Everyone was just trying to get their stuff done.”

Despite the overall devastation, and the destruction at Beth Israel, the community as a whole was in a relatively good place, said Steve Richer, 68, Beth Israel’s president at the time. UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Communities, now the Jewish Federations of North America, poured millions of dollars for Katrina relief into the Gulf Coast region. Richer said Beth Israel accrued about $600,000 from national organizations and private donations.

Before Katrina made landfall, Beth Israel’s caretaker, who lived in an apartment above the sanctuary, had managed to save the Torah scrolls. Several synagogue fixtures, including the stained glass windows and memorial plaques, were later deemed salvageable.

Richer, who retired as executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2007, noted that many of the Jewish volunteers who descended on the Gulf Coast were redirected to hard-hit towns like Bay St. Louis and Waveland, where there were no Jews.

“I think we had consensus about that,” he said. “We did it in the way that our religion teaches us to do it: You put everybody out there first.”

For three years after the storm, the homeless congregation held Sabbath services at Beauvoir United Methodist Church and High Holidays in a chapel at Keesler Air Force Base, both in Biloxi. Farkas, who slept on a blow-up mattress in a Beauvoir classroom during his visits from New York, led a minyan on Friday nights and a small Torah study on Saturday mornings. With the church occupied on Sunday, Hebrew school classes occupied the offices of a company that sold housecleaning products. The congregation grew closer. It was an environment, said Lori Beth Susman, a magazine editor who moved to Gulfport from Las Vegas two decades ago, where everyone knew everyone.

When it came time for the community to address its own damage, there was less unanimity than before. Many felt it made the most sense to build a new synagogue far from the coast. Several elderly congregants insisted that Beth Israel renovate the old site, even though it was in a recognized flood zone and construction would cost more than the community’s $1.2 million budget.

“There were a lot of people who felt that this was the home of the Jewish community, and it was an area that we didn’t want to leave,” said Kessie, a Chicago native who moved to Mississippi in 1988.

In the end, the congregation decided to plant new roots in Gulfport, about 15 miles from the old Biloxi site, on land donated by the Goldins, a prominent Jewish family in the area. It opened in May 2009.

Behind a wide lawn, on a leafy street lined with churches, the pillared synagogue looks more like a stately suburban home than a place of worship. Accouterments from the old building — the Shabbat lamp and the memorial plaques in the front foyer — can be found throughout. There are two classrooms for Hebrew school students, ages 4 to 13, and a pergola-covered patio abuts a kosher kitchen.

Only 45 or so dues-paying families make up the current congregation, and 10 students are signed up for Hebrew school in the fall. While Beth Israel’s membership has declined about 30 percent since Katrina, and lay leaders conduct the weekly services — the synagogue has never had a full-time rabbi — there is little worry that Jewish life on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast will begin to fade.

Hall, who opened the Chabad center in Gulfport last year, hopes he can help. He said 30 people attended an event he organized for the Shavuot holiday earlier this year, and he studies with 12 or so people on a weekly basis. Chabad’s goal, Hall said, is to complement Beth Israel, not to compete with it.

“As a rule, we do not schedule conflicting events or publicize Friday night services in deference to Beth Israel,” the rabbi said. “There are not enough Jewish people here for two communities. We have this in mind whatever we do. We are interested in serving the greater Jewish community, not creating our own.”

More than anything, the new synagogue represents permanence for Beth Israel. And the residential design, Susman said, is affirmation that Beth Israel, however small, is “one big family.”

In fact, the groundbreaking ceremony in October 2008 reminded some of a family reunion. Dressed in suits and dresses, congregants took turns signing chunks of the synagogue’s cinderblock foundation.

“Those signed stones,” Kessie said, “are something we hope and pray we never see again.”

Special Report


“> This Time They’re Ready for the Wave

KANCHIPURAM DISTRICT, INDIA — The bright, clear morning of Dec. 26, 2004, would forever change S. Desingu’s life.

The first monster wave rose from the Sea of Bengal without warning at 8 a.m. — silently, massively.

For the Indian fishermen at sea, the startling energy pulse bumped harmlessly under their boats, passing in an instant. The wave started to rise ominously in the shallows.

Onshore, the 36-year-old Desingu glanced up to see a 30-foot liquid wall surging in as tall as the tops of the soaring coconut palms. The fishing craft along the shore rolled end over end, tossed as easily as playthings in a bathtub.

Mesmerized, Desingu, whose name means fisherman, actually moved in closer.

“Then I was trapped,” he recalled in his native Tamil, through a translator. “The water was over my head.”

His wife, who came looking for him, also was caught in the flood. So was her aunt.

Desingu and other villagers didn’t even know a word to call this calamity. Only later would he hear of “tsunami.”

In India the roiling water took an estimated 18,000 lives — more than nine times the number lost in Hurricane Katrina. About three-quarters of the casualties were women and children. Although many people are more aware of the disaster’s astronomical deathtoll in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the statistics here in India are staggering: some 157,000 homes destroyed; 640,000 displaced.

Along all the southern Asian coastlines, more than 220,000 souls were swept to their deaths, according to a U.N. tally. Some 1.8 million were left homeless or became refugees.

As for Desingu, the tsunami first brought stunning loss and then ongoing struggle. But a glimmer of opportunity also materialized. For this poor but enterprising fisherman was already running a nonprofit that hired schoolteachers and organized health clinics and after-school programs. In the wake of the tsunami, money and aid began pouring in for Desingu’s nonprofit and his village. Suddenly, this 10th-generation fisherman had the chance to become the catalyst for permanent change in southeast India’s deprived and hard-pressed fishing villages.

“Now, all of a sudden, I can do more than I had planned to do,” said Desingu, the founder and director of Society for Education and Action (SEA).

And he would join forces to battle inadequate schools, poor health care, gender discrimination and government bureaucracy with people he knew little about — people called Jews.

In the days after the tsunami hit, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a relatively small, New York City-based nonprofit, began to work with Desingu and other regional leaders who run nongovernmental organizations or NGOs as they are commonly called. The upward shift in possibilities for AJWS paralleled that of the hard-working fisherman. Before the tsunami, the Jewish aid group had an annual budget of $11.2 million for projects spanning the developing world — a pinprick compared to other groups that do similar work — and small even when compared to other Jewish groups that focus on helping Jews and Israel. But relief appeals for the tsunami brought in $11 million, doubling the nonprofit’s funds.

Other aid groups have had similar experiences as a second flood — of charitable assistance — poured into India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. Private U.S. sources have given $1.775 billion to a loose coalition of 62 nonprofits (which includes AJWS and the American Joint Distribution Committee, another Jewish nonprofit that handled an influx of $18.5 million in tsunami-related donations).

Like Desingu, the American Jewish World Service saw an opening to effect change well beyond emergency relief or short-term recovery. The AJWS wanted to take on the pre-tsunami landscape of poverty and deprivation. Just as surely as the tsunami altered so much for the worse, the AJWS, working with local leaders like Desingu, wanted to make permanent changes for the good. Although it granted immediate aid where most needed, the organization also created a long-term development plan to spread out its windfall resources over five years.

“A lot of donors come and go after an emergency,” said Kate Kroeger, senior program officer for AJWS. “The real work kicks in three to four years after a disaster, when a community is stabilized. If donors pull out before that, they’ll miss out on three-quarters of the benefit.”

The American Jewish World Service already was working in India when the tsunami hit. But the storm thrust both AJWS and Desingu suddenly — and willingly — onto a larger stage, where their efforts can accomplish vastly more.

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site:
” target=”_blank”>http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355


Web site:

Underclass Surfaces From Floodwaters

The gut-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the levee failures at Lake Pontchartrain, but also the failure of a nation numbed to the growing division between “haves” and “have-nots.”

What is appearing on television sets across America is the inevitable impact of decades of ignoring a stark difference in economic realities. While wealthy, predominantly white Gulf residents — and most Jews — were able to leave the region or escape to higher ground, it was poorer, largely black, elderly and sick Americans who were left behind to fend for themselves.

In the case of New Orleans, high poverty rates already existed before the storm: More than 30 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line. These are, in most cases, the victims whose bodies we saw floating in the Mississippi River and dying for lack of basic necessities at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.

If you couldn’t recognize the half-submerged landmarks in the French Quarter, you would swear footage from New Orleans and beyond came right from Haiti or some other Third World country.

Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released staggering new poverty data. The numbers show that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, bringing the total to 37 million. Hunger rates in this country closely track the poverty index, and both numbers have seen steady increases for four years running. The Census Bureau also reported that income inequality is at an all-time high, with 50 percent of income going to the top 20 percent of households.

So when natural disaster strikes, it is all too easy to predict who will bear the brunt of the devastation. It won’t be the high-flying corporate raiders and image-obsessed celebrities who typically occupy the front pages of newspapers and magazines. It will be the person who fixes your car, or who serves you lunch, or who takes care of your friend’s mother at the local old age home. These will be the people we read about, our new “celebrities of tragedy” — fellow citizens who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.

As these divisions become more evident from the images we have been waking up to, growing numbers of Americans are asking hard questions. They are moved, I hope, by the realization that we are witnessing the coming out of a national underclass, one that has long existed and can no longer be confined to the margins.

The recovery is already under way, although efforts to rebuild will take years and years. As we repair the cracks in the levees and begin the difficult work of restoring people’s lives, we will be remiss if we do not seize this moment to heal the fractures running deep through our society.

Through the act of rebuilding — and by that I mean rebuilding policies and values as well as levees — we have a chance to fashion a society that addresses inequality and cherishes the contributions of every individual. We ignore that opportunity at our own peril.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is among the organizations aiding hurricane relief efforts.


Jewish Values Guide Marine’s Life in Iraq

We lost e-mail contact with our son, Kayitz, when he and his Marine unit disembarked from their ship on Feb. 24. From just about the beginning of the Iraq War, though, we knew what he was going through.

Though incessant Internet searches, I found two reporters embedded in his unit, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 1st Marine Division. I discovered that my son, a 21-year-old corporal, was in the midst of a series of nasty battles — notably, Nasiriyah, Al Kut and Baghdad. I discovered later that he had been in battles every day — small, violent actions routing Saddam Hussein loyalists and Fedayeen militia from one city or village after another.

About two weeks after the war began, we suddenly received a message from him, when an embedded photographer let him use his e-mail. We heard firsthand of the violence, the destruction — battles to the death with a fanatical enemy. And we heard tender stories, too — combing through the bodies and wreckage, helping Iraqis find relatives, helping the wounded. Once the fighting had ended, he and other Marines immediately tended to the civilian and enemy injured, before getting into their vehicles on their way to the next battle.

He spoke of being welcomed exuberantly and tearfully by Shiite populations. He heard stories of massacres and executions. His battalion later uncovered one of Saddam’s killing fields near Al Hilla.

My son shared with me that he had hoped the Iraqi people would receive him as a liberator. It was that thought that kept him going, ever since he realized that he might be deployed. It was not that American security was not a concern; it was, but his sense of American and Jewish values made the idea of acting as a liberator primary in his mind.

A word about those values: I taught him in his confirmation class some years ago that a value is something that, once said, demands that it be lived, acted on, served, protected. We discussed a few of those core values at length before he left for the Afghanistan theater in December 2001, and while he was on his ship, we corresponded at length.

We began that conversation again, once he found out that he was being deployed to Iraq. In retrospect, I am sure it was a way that he and I both were dealing with the possibility of his, God forbid, not returning. If he were going to die there, he and I wanted to be clear about why.

The core American value about which we spoke is contained in John Kennedy’s inaugural address. "Let every nation know," Kennedy said, "whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

My son realized that the price Kennedy spoke of was, at least in part, the lives of military personnel. The American commitment to liberty throughout the world could only be realized if men and women were willing to die for it. His last e-mail from the ship before they flew off to take positions prior to the liberation told me he was willing.

On the Jewish side, he was taught over and over again the meaning of the "Mi Chamocha" prayer in the siddur, where we celebrate God delivering us from Egypt. He asked me as a child, as all children whom I teach ask me, why God does not directly liberate the oppressed any more. I gave him the same answer I give other children: God did it once to show us what God wanted. Now it is up to us.

While on the ship en route to Iraq, my son wrote movingly of that thought: a Jew, an American, willing to risk his life to bring liberation to Arabs. Whether they were grateful or not, he wrote, he knew it was his duty, as an American, as a Jew. God redeemed us so that we could redeem others.

While he was still home, we discussed at length the brutality of Saddam’s regime and what it meant that he might be in a war to destroy that regime. For him, it was worth fighting for, worth risking his life.

Just as the war was concluding, he celebrated Passover — at the former Secret Service headquarters of the Special Republican Guard. He, the chaplain and the other Jewish Marines present marveled at the moment and the location.

Once the war ended, his unit was assigned to the province of Babil, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, with a population of about 1 million. His unit, Headquarters Company, was stationed in the regional capital, Al Hilla. The 200 or so Marines had the responsibility, in addition to coordination with the rest of the battalion spread out over the area, for security and reconstruction in that city of about half a million.

Kayitz has been assigned to training new Iraqi police officers at the regional police academy, infrastructure work at the fire department and a local elementary school, security at city hall and, in general, anything he and the others could do to improve and make more secure the life of the population.

He writes in an e-mail that over the approximately three months in Al Hilla, he’s been involved in every aspect of rebuilding the country at one time or another.

He gives charity daily. Kayitz receives many packages from his family and well-wishers in our synagogue community. He gives away much of what he receives. He knows he’ll get more, and, God willing, will be home in a few months. The food, clothing and odds and ends that he gives away mean so much to the children and their parents.

Kayitz works long, hard hours every day of the week, as do the other Marines. He is among highly motivated, highly disciplined, highly dedicated warriors who have become builders. He writes of being utterly exhausted but his morale being very high.

He also writes that every single day he knows he is doing good deeds, helping rebuild a country. His expertise in the police academy, because of his special operations training, is searching and securing personnel, vehicles and buildings.

Kayitz finds that he has to teach the Iraqi cadets not only police and weapons skills, but basic human interaction, basic human regard. He thinks of it as teaching core American and Jewish values of respect for the individual and only using as much force as necessary to accomplish the task safely.

He wrote home the following story: "Some Baath activists had evicted a family from their home before the war and then fled before the Marines arrived. Now that the city is secure, the Baath members are slowly trying to reinsinuate themselves into the life of the city."

They again forcibly threw this family out of their house. My son found out and took a few Marines and some new Iraqi police officers to the house. They arrested the Baathists, reinstalled the family — father, mother, 13 children — and he visits the family daily on his rounds.

He lets the neighborhood know that the family is under the special protection of the U.S. Marines. As the Army has slowly taken over the police academy, he spends more time with the new police force, especially addressing the constant problem of Baathists trying to disrupt the peace in the city.

Another problem he faces daily is homelessness, both as a result of the war and Baathist cruelty to the local Shiite population before the war. His main resources, he writes, are common-sense problem-solving skills mixed with compassion for the suffering and passion for justice. He daily feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, solves conflicts and tries to do his part in teaching an American and, from his perspective, Jewish approach to setting up a civil society.

On the Jewish issue, my son has a dark complexion. His mother, Ruty, is an Israeli Yemenite. Iraqis know that Americans have a diverse ethnic heritage, and he does look Middle Eastern.

They regularly ask him what kind of American he is. He used to answer forthrightly: Jewish (Yahud). Iraqis looked at him uncomprehendingly, and then tensed up. Some ran away.

When he first encountered this, he was hurt. He had risked his life for them and he wanted them to know he was a Jew; part of what motivated him to help them was his Jewishness. He wrote me that he had to learn to distinguish between those who hate and those who are simply taught to hate.

Kayitz also knew that his good deeds were not based on whether he was appreciated. Appreciation would be nice, but that was not what was motivating him.

Now, he does not talk much about his being Jewish to the Iraqis. It just complicates things. In his inner life, it is a different story. Those prayers we used to study together are still with him. The liturgy is filled with images of God supporting the fallen, releasing the prisoners, helping the bowed down stand upright, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. And, he was taught, we serve God by imitating God.

Though he very likely would be doing these things without grounding in Jewish liturgy, he tells me that the Jewish sources come to mind constantly. He is deeply moved by the idea that he daily lives out the ethical demands of the religion in the clearest way imaginable. He is aware that he probably is doing more tangible and direct good for other people than he would do in years anywhere else.

A Marine motto is, "No worse enemy, no better friend." The U.S. Marines fought courageously and brilliantly. Their efforts at peace and rebuilding have been no less impressive, perhaps just less spectacular. Kayitz is just another one of the Americans — one of those Marines — who has fought for liberation and now is helping rebuild.

He feels he is living out American and Jewish history, destiny and values in his work of liberation and getting a nation back to its work of creating a just, secure and prosperous life for its citizens.

When Kayitz was in grade school, I would drive to school to help him and his brother, Lev, memorize liturgy.

Several times a day, I think of that little 8-year-old boy, sitting behind me in my car, reciting prayers. Then I think of the Marine in Iraq living them out, making prayers come true.

Mordecai Finley is rabbi at Ohr HaTorah in West Los Angeles and Provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Forgive, But Don’t Forget

Rabbi Alan Lachtman began Shabbat services at Temple Beth David in Temple City on Dec. 8 by having the children’s choir sing “Light One Candle,” a song by Peter, Paul and Mary. The song had symbolic meanings, both positive and destructive, for the congregation. Twenty years ago, on Dec. 6, 1980, the fifth day of Chanukah, two neo-Nazis broke into the synagogue, poured gasoline on the pulpit, and set the synagogue on fire. The sanctuary was gutted, the cabinet containing the Torah scrolls was singed and two Torah scrolls — one of which had been rescued from the Holocaust from a temple that had burned years ago — were damaged.

Four rows of pews, a complete set of prayer books and seven of the temple’s 12 stained-glass windows depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel were destroyed. The blaze caused $100,000 in damage to the building and $30,000 damage to the contents. Yet the synagogue survived, due to its determination and to an outpouring of support from the community. The fire evoked outrage throughout the San Gabriel Valley among community residents of all faiths. The interfaith Temple City Ministerial Association offered the use of their buildings to the Jewish community. And on the Friday night following the fire, more then 300 members of the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in West Los Angeles traveled to Temple Beth David to express their support and to contribute to the rebuilding funds. Among the participants were Leonard Nimoy, Ed Asner, Jack Carter and director Arthur Hiller.

The synagogue was completely rebuilt, the Torah scrolls were repaired, and the prayer books and other items destroyed in the fire were all replaced. The old stained-glass windows, which were blown out by the intensity of the fire, have been replaced by new ones that contain some of the glass from the old windows. The murals on the windows depict the Torah and Menorah encircled by flames shooting up on all sides of them.

Last Friday, the temple dedicated new Torah covers and thanked the community for two decades of support. Rabbi Alan Lachtman compared the fire to the biblical burning bush.

“The synagogue was burned but not eliminated,” he told the congregation. “At Temple Beth David, we found out what could be truly mean and destructive in the actions of misguided people and how someone’s match can destroy what generations tried to build. When we light the candles during Chanukah, we think of the lights as dispelling darkness and gloom as opposed to doing things that terrorize people.”

Asked about the echoes of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht in acts like arson, he said, “Yes, there’s a parallel. The arson was not a spontaneous act, nor was Kristallnacht a spontaneous act. But the difference here is we were able to rebuild, while Kristallnacht was part of a systematized crescendo of anti-Semitism, racism, hatred and cruelty. Here, in our sleepy little town, people banded together when adversity happened. They had the opportunity to reach out to one another. That’s what a community really means.”

Lachtman went on to reflect on the implications of the experience of the fire. “I think about how goodness overcame negativity and the power of people to do evil,” he said. “Out of the darkness came a sense of light. And the truth is that adversity made us stronger.”

Lachtman recalled that after the fire, the children of the synagogue “had nightmares. They took their Chanukah menorahs out of their windows out of fear.” Referring to the new generation at Temple Beth David, he said: “I think it’s so important that those children who didn’t experience this should realize that the community can overcome the horrible acts of a few and affirm the goodwill of the majority.”

Irwin Frazin, a former president of the congregation who saw the results of the fire that day, recalled “the smell of burned, charred wood and fabric.”

“You looked around and saw the destruction. And you felt disbelief that this was happening in America,” he said.

Among the community speakers Friday night were the mayor of Temple City, Chuck Souder, who presented a proclamation from the Temple City community in support of the synagogue, and Dr. Ilena Blicker of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

David Lehrer, L.A.-based regional director of the ADL, had spoken at the rededication ceremony when Temple Beth David was rebuilt in 198l. “The arson at Temple Beth David,” he said, “was certainly a catalyst in helping us focus on hate crimes and in the adoption of the first hate crime law in California, which ADL drafted.”

One of the strangest and most hopeful consequences of the arson was alluded to by Lachtman in his sermon. There was someone not present Friday night who was inevitably on people’s minds: Michael Canale, one of the two men who had committed the arson. Since coming out of prison in l983, Canale has repented and has committed his life to opposing the neo-Nazis he had once supported.

While in prison, Canale had been befriended by Jewish doctors, social workers and fellow prisoners. He realized he had been misled and mistaken. When he came out of prison, he sought to apologize to Lachtman and the congregation for what he had done. Through the efforts of Irv Rubin, head of the ultra-militant Jewish Defense League (JDL), who arranged a public meeting filmed by CBS-TV, Canale expressed his sorrow for what he had done. Commenting on Canale’s atonement, Lachtman said, “So out of the darkness came a sense of light. Through the court system and people reaching out, Michael Canale’s life was also changed. He came back after prison and visited us. He even played bingo with us.

“A reporter recently asked me, if Michael was here, what would you say to him? I said that I have talked to Michael on and off over the years. It’s been long enough that I think the anger is gone for our congregants as well. And I think if they knew some of the changes that he’s made, there would be a sort of acceptance.” Lachtman pointed out Irv Rubin in the audience and praised the efforts he had made with Michael.

Later, in an interview, Rubin, who wore a red-white-and-blue American-flag tie and a dapper purple shirt, told The Journal: “Michael and I were bitter enemies. He tried to attack me from the witness stand during his trial for arson. He lunged off the stand and four bailiffs pinned him to the ground. It took me a long time to put aside my feelings about him. Because all I wanted to do was kill him at the time for firebombing the shul and for being a Nazi.”

When Canale came out of jail, he sought out Rubin. Rubin had misgivings, but he discovered Canale was sincere. He sent him undercover into the Ayran Nations in Idaho to infiltrate the group. Canale also testified in the Allan Berg murder case in Denver in front of a federal jury. Since that time Canale has continued to help the FBI and law enforcement to unmask neo-Nazi organizations and has given valuable testimony against them. “I never thought a neo-Nazi could change to that degree. But he did,” Rubin said. The JDL leader described Canale’s public apology to Lachtman in l983. “You could see Canale sweating profusely,” Rubin said. “The TV camera was glaring on him. It was actually a very touching, emotional moment. At first Lachtman thought that his apology was contrived because I was pressuring him. But it was a sincere apology.”

Rubin posed the obvious question: “How does a rabbi forgive someone who burned down his sanctuary? God only knows. He’s managed to do it. Rabbi Lachtman is a very tolerant guy.”

Today Michael Canale is on disability. He spoke to The Journal by phone from his home. “I changed in prison,” he said. “I had a Jewish trustee bringing me food in L.A. County Jail. At first I was afraid he was going to poison me. I started trusting him. I met other Jewish friends that I would eat with and play cards with. After meeting these Jewish guys, I saw a lot of stuff I was told about the Jewish people was wrong. I saw how the Nazis would lie and change the Bible around to make it sound their way. Like they were trying to say the Jewish people were the beasts of the field.

“I just couldn’t hate anyone anymore,” Canale explained. ” I just couldn’t. CBS filmed me with Rabbi Lachtman, a really nice man. He said to the news media, ‘We can forgive but never forget.’ I can understand.”