Temple bomb case hurtful reminder in NYC community
May 25, 2009
NEW YORK (AP) -- Riverdale has a reputation as a tranquil piece of suburbia nestled in New York City.
The hilly Bronx neighborhood boasts leafy estates, prestigious schools and sweeping views of the Hudson River. Residents tout the neighborliness of a place that feels both close to urbane charms and far from urban ills.
Yet the arrests last week of four men accused of trying to bomb two Riverdale synagogues weren't the community's first confrontation with the specter of violent hatred. A local weekly newspaper was firebombed in 1989, in apparent retaliation for an editorial. And a group of men including a Palestinian angry at Israel tossed homemade bombs through a temple's door in 2000.
The newest case evokes both painful memories and new anguish for the heavily Jewish community, which prides itself on tolerance and embracing diversity. One of the temples authorities say was targeted, the Riverdale Jewish Center, has provided a Muslim exchange student with space to pray near her school.
"Riverdale terrorist plot - three words I never thought I would say in one sentence," mused resident Aliza Hausman, 28, a Dominican-American who converted from Roman Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism. She moved to Riverdale in 2006, seeing it as "definitely a tolerant type of place."
Despite her conversion, one of the community's two Catholic colleges readily hired her for a part-time job, said Hausman, a former editor and public school teacher who keeps a blog called "Memoirs of a Jewminicana."
A scenic swath of land along the Hudson, Riverdale has been a home or summer home to Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, the conductor Arturo Toscanini and Carly Simon, among other notables.
Wealthy New Yorkers began creating estates there in the mid-1800s. Smaller homes, high-rises and a subway line have since made parts of the area more urban. But preservationists have reined in development pressures to protect single-family homes and the community's sense of being a place apart in the often gritty Bronx.
"Riverdale is a community that has its own, somewhat separate identity," said lifelong resident and City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell, a former state attorney general and assemblyman.
Long a Jewish and Irish-American redoubt, Riverdale has seen an influx of Dominican-Americans in recent years, along with Manhattanites of all demographics attracted by its family-oriented feel and relative affordability.
Growing, too, is the population of Orthodox Jews, drawn by a rising number of Orthodox synagogues and schools.
Orthodox newcomers are a small fraction of the 101,000 people in Riverdale and two adjacent neighborhoods counted with it in city community statistics.
But with the growing Orthodox community, "the image of Riverdale is much more Jewish," said Richard Stein, co-publisher emeritus of The Riverdale Press, one of the area's weekly newspapers. His parents founded it in 1950; it is now owned by Richner Communications Inc.
The first floor of the paper's office was destroyed in the February 1989 firebombing. It came days after Stein's brother, Bernard, wrote an editorial saying citizens had a right to read Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." The book prompted Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a death decree that forced the author into hiding for years.
The paper published the day after the bombing, with a front-page editorial declaring, "We will not be silenced."
The paper continues to run an editorial about Rushdie once a year. One version helped win Bernard Stein the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, a rare honor for a small newspaper.
In 2000, authorities said four men tried to make Molotov cocktails out of vodka bottles and lobbed them through the glass door of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale the night before Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar's holiest day. The firebombs didn't ignite.
Two men were convicted. The lawyer for one of the men, a Palestinian, told a court that her client was trying to stop the congregation from sending money to Israel.
Authorities say the recent temple bombing plot was more advanced.
The defendants, Muslims angry at the United States and Jews, had gotten what they thought was a powerful explosive, a court complaint said. The explosive was inert, and their supplier was part of an FBI sting, according to the complaint.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the men may have chosen their temple targets simply for their convenience. One is near a highway, the other a few blocks away.
"In other words, it could have been any synagogue, any temple here in Riverdale or elsewhere," Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale wrote in a speech for Saturday services. The Orthodox synagogue was not among the alleged conspirators' targets.
"We dare not forget that an attack against any house of worship," he wrote, "is an attack against every house of worship."