January 18, 2020

Suspect Sought in Nessah Synagogue Vandalism

Surveillance photo of the suspect in the attack; Photo courtesy of Nessah Synagogue

The Jewish community is reeling after an attack at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills in the early morning hours of Shabbat, Dec. 14.

The Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD) is seeking a lone suspect who managed to enter the synagogue around 2 a.m. The suspect, believed to be a male, 20 to 25 years old, was captured on the synagogue’s security cameras. The video shows he has short, dark curly hair, a thin build, possibly wearing prescription glasses, shorts, low-top shoes (possibly Pumas). BHPD Lt. Elisabeth Albanese said he carried a backpack and pulled a rolling suitcase.

At a press conference held outside Nessah Synagogue around 2 p.m. on Dec. 14, BHPD said it responded to a call from the synagogue shortly after 7 a.m., after an employee notified security when he arrived for work and found an open door and items ransacked inside.

Police said the suspect committed a “series of minor vandalisms as he traversed through the Rexford/Elm alley south of Wilshire during the early morning hours.” He then forced his way into the synagogue. Police added, “He then moved through the synagogue, heavily ransacking the interior. He overturned furniture and distributed brochures and material throughout the interior. He damaged several Jewish relics but fortunately the main [Torah] scrolls survived unscathed.”

However, the “unkosher” Torah scrolls below the bimah were destroyed and thrown on the ground of the synagogue.

Police said it does not appear that anything was stolen. No one was inside the synagogue at the time and no one was injured. Although the police are investigating this as a hate crime, they say the suspect left no markings or other overt signs of anti-Semitism. 

Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch issued a statement outside the synagogue saying, “This cowardly attack hits at the heart of who we are as a community. It is not just an attack on the Jewish community of Beverly Hills, it is an attack on all of us. The entire city stands in solidarity behind Nessah, its members and congregants. We are committed to catching the criminal who desecrated a holy place on Shabbat — of all days — and bringing him to justice.”

There were no services at Nessah Synagogue on Saturday morning. While some people arrived to discover the shul cordoned off, others received phone calls from members and friends before services were set to begin, informing them of what had happened.

American Jewish Committee Regional Director Richard Hirschhaut was at the scene and told the Journal, “We’re very pleased the Beverly Hills Police Department is treating this investigation as a presumptive hate crime. … This indeed is a grotesque act of hate and we look forward to the perpetrator being brought to justice.”

“This cowardly attack hits at the heart of who we are as a community. It is not just an attack on the Jewish community of Beverly Hills, it is an attack on all of us.” 

— Mayor John Mirisch 

Shortly after the vandalism, local resident Isaac Yomtovian sent out a statement, saying: “We, the Jews of LA and the US, must resist and fight these anti-Semitic acts, especially the destruction of our halls of prayers and homes of our holy scrolls of Torah. … The forces of evil must face justice. To do so, we must become united and vocal, demanding from our community, regional and national leaders to take action and stop the hatred of free citizens of United States.  

“I highly recommend that:

 (1) A day of fast be declared by all Iranian rabbis for the destruction of our holy scrolls of Torah;

(2) The day of fast should include lighting of the Hanukkah menorah and demonstrations in front of the mayor’s office, the offices of our senators and congressmen, as well as the Federal building;

(3) The entire Jewish population of LA must be mobilized to light the Hanukkah (Freedom) menorah in the streets and at home.

(4) We must reject these acts of anti-Semitism by writing to our senators and congressmen;  and finally

(5)  Demanding the  FBI investigate these hate crimes and bring these thugs to justice.”

Nessah’s board of directors issued a statement on Dec. 15, saying, “Whether this
crime was committed by a hateful bigot
or a common thug who seized an opportunity to trespass and vandalize, we will not be intimidated. Rather, we are propelled to unite as a community, to unite with fellow Jews and to stand strong with good people of all faiths.”

Several community members spoke with the Journal the day after the vandalism.  Cardiologist Afshine Emrani said he received text messages from friends about the break-in. “It took me immediately back to when we had to leave Iran during the revolution,” he said. “And I wondered if we would one day have to flee America, the country that has been my home for the past 40 years and I’ve come to love.”

At Elat Market in Pico-Robertson, Kevin Shokou called the vandalism “anti-Semitic” and “anti-humanity. There’s really nothing different between Jews, Muslims or anybody,” he said.

Having lived in the U.S. for 30 years, Shokou said, “It’s strange there are people living in this country who hate the Jews. It’s very awful.”

Ben Soleimani said he was walking to Nessah on Saturday morning when he saw the block cordoned off by police. “It was hate,” he said.

Sam Yebri, president and co-founder of the Jewish Iranian organization 30 Years After, issued a statement, saying, “30 Years After condemns in the strongest terms the act of vandalism that took place this Shabbat at the Nessah Israel Synagogue in Beverly Hills. In our society, no crime in any house of worship can be tolerated. We thank the Beverly Hills Police Department for their vigilance and support.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted: “Shocked and outraged by the vandalism at Nessah Synagogue. We will stand together and speak out strongly against any act of hate and intolerance in our community. We’re keeping our friends and neighbors in our thoughts as police investigate.”

Rep. Ted. Lieu (D-Torrance) posted on Facebook on Dec. 15: “Appalled that our neighbors, the congregation of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, were victims of vandalism overnight. We must condemn in the strongest terms acts of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and ensure that everyone in our community feels safe in their houses of worship.”

The Israeli-American Civil Action Network released the following statement: “Enough is enough, from the East Coast to the West Coast, Jewish communities are under attack,” said Vered Nisim, ICAN California chairwoman. “Just a few days ago, Jews were killed in Jersey City, and now today this vandalism. How many Jews have to die and how many synagogues have to be destroyed before serious action is taken?”

The Israeli-American Civil Action Network also hosted a free town hall open to the public on Dec. 18 at the Beverly Hilton in conjunction with the City of Beverly Hills under the banner Combating Anti-Semitism: Creating Safe Communities. 

Anyone with any information on the suspect should contact the Beverly Hills Police Department at (310) 285-2125.

— ­Additional reporting by Managing Editor Kelly Hartog