Union City, NJ - Arson Investigation Into Chasidic Girls School Continues
Union City, NJ - Authorities were considering, on Wednesday, offering a reward for information leading to an arrest in connection with arson at a chasidic girls school in Union City.
Last Thursday evening two individuals cut through the gate of the Bnos Sanz Girls School, affiliated with the Klausenburg-Sanz chasidic community, and set fire to a desk outside the building. A 5-year-old student living across the street from the school noticed the fire and alerted her father, head of the city’s Hatzolah volunteer ambulance service. Within minutes he extinguished the flame, but not before the perpetrators ran off.
According to police, early reports that the vandals had set up a burning cross on the desk were false, while New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League office has been in touch with Union City officials should the attack be considered a hate crime.
“It’s too soon to tell because all we know at this juncture is there was a fire at a school that has a Jewish base,” said Debbie Simon, Hudson County deputy first assistant prosecutor. “There were no messages left that would imply there was a hate crime or anything outside the fact that the fire occurred at an Orthodox Jewish school.”
On Tuesday, Simon reported that the leads the Union City police were following had not panned out and the investigation would continue. She supported a suggestion from the ADL that the police offer a reward for information. A decision on whether to offer one was expected midweek. Rewards have worked in the past with similar cases, according to the ADL.
“Until somebody’s apprehended for this, there’s always the anxiety that the perpetrators are free,” said Etzion Neuer, director of the ADL’s New Jersey office. “And until we know what the motivation is, we still have a concern that a Jewish institution was targeted because of what it stands for, what it represents.”
Once an arrest is made, Simon said, a determination of the nature of the crime would be forthcoming.
“We’re still not 100 percent sure that this event is going to be found to be a hate crime,” she said. “We’re keeping all doors and avenues open.”
While the attack may turn out not to be anti-Semitic, Neuer recommended that other Jewish organizations call their local police departments for evaluations of their security. “Institutions tend to only review these precautions around High Holiday time,” he said. “We see incidents can happen any time of the year.”
Klausenburg-Sanz chasidim have lived in Union City for more than 40 years and enjoyed peace and security. The Bnos Sanz Girls School sits on one side of 34th Street, while the boys’ school across the street, Mesivta Sanz, houses the community’s synagogue as well as a kosher butcher and grocer. The community also runs the Hatzaloh service, which last year led the search for the missing Rabbi Zev Segal, whose body was eventually found in the Hackensack River.
The community, made up of about 150 families, is relatively close-knit. Each adult male has a key to the community’s library, a room in the boys school filled with approximately 3,000 Hebrew texts, and it is not unusual for people to enter the library at all hours of the night.
“I feel always very comfortable here, very secure,” said librarian Mordechai Roth. Even in light of last week’s incident, Roth said he is not concerned with the building’s security.
Rabbi Hersch Turner, director of Bnos Sanz, serves at the city’s police chaplain and the community enjoys a positive relationship with other residents, said Solomon Nussenzweig, the girls school supervisor. The community even honored Mayor Brian Stack at a recent dinner.
Now, uniformed and plainclothes police officers patrol the school’s grounds. Once the perpetrators have been caught, Nussenzweig said, the 24-hour guards will likely be replaced by periodic patrols.
Approximately 200 girls in nursery school through eighth grade are enrolled at Bnos Sanz, while Mesivta Sanz has approximately 150 students in first through 12th grades.
“I think the students are very calm, very sure the police department will do their best to keep us safe,” Nussenzweig said. “I see the kids calm and relaxed. They just hope it doesn’t happen again. They’re just thankful nothing serious happened.”
The Sanz community dates back to the 19th century and Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of the town of Sanz in Galicia, which spanned western Ukraine to the southeastern corner of Poland. He is credited as the forefather of the Klausenburg-Sanz, Sanz-Zhmigrod, Sanz-Gorlitz, Sanz-Gribov, and Bobover chasidic movements.
Halberstam’s great-grandson, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, founded the Klausenburg-Sanz dynasty in 1927. He grew up in Rudnick, a small town close to Sanz, and in 1927 he became rabbi of the community of Klausenburg, Romania.
The Klausenburger rebbe, as he was known, gained a strong following, but World War II wiped out 85 percent of his chasidim. Halberstam, who lost his wife and 11 children in the Holocaust, immigrated to America in 1947 to begin again with the surviving chasidim, settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
During the late 1950s, Halberstam immigrated to Israel and set up the Kiryat Sanz community in Netanya. After Halberstam’s death in 1994, his elder son, Grand Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Halberstam, became leader of Kiryat Sanz, while his younger son, Grand Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, took control of the community in Brooklyn. Halberstam’s son-in-law, Grand Rabbi Shlomo Goldman, leads the Sanz community in Union City, which the late Halberstam founded just more than 40 years ago.
“They’re just such warm and wonderful people,” said Jeff Bernstein, a lawyer who lives in North Bergen and works in Union City. “If you ever need any help, they’re there to provide it.”
Bernstein is a board member of HudsonJewish, an organization dedicated to reviving the county’s once-thriving Jewish community. As president of Temple Beth Abraham in North Bergen, Bernstein has frequently hosted members of the Sanz community who come to layne Torah.
“We were sorry to see this happen and we remain concerned about its meaning,” he said.
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