Congregation Schara Tzedeck in Vancouver had an accelerant used to light a fire at its front doors

The front entrance of Congregation Schara Tzedeck after an apparent arson attack on May 30, 2024. (Credit: @nicoslobinsky)

Vancouver Police Department (VPD) confirmed that an accelerant was used to light a fire at the front doors of Congregation Schara Tzedeck synagogue on May 30, at around 9:20 p.m. when people inside the building heard a “bang” noise.

While the Jewish Federation of Vancouver initially reported that an incendiary device was directed at the doors, it’s now being investigated as an arson by the VPD.

A passerby alerted synagogue members that their building was on fire, and one man extinguished it with his jacket as flames were rising to the second floor. But damage was limited to external charring.

No one was injured due to the fire, and emergency services declared the building safe for reopening.

Police will increase patrols around local Jewish institutions, according to the statement from Federation.

Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of Schara Tzedeck, the city’s largest Orthodox synagogue—which was founded in 1907—was among four local rabbis who privately met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 27 to address safety concerns in Vancouver.

“We’re glad we didn’t wake up to a pile of ashes,” Rosenblatt told reporters on the Friday on the scene, as the smell of smoke lingered, and he remarked upon how there was no ‘clandestine” effort made by the culprit.

“Somebody decided it was OK to just walk up these stairs,” the rabbi was quoted as telling Canadian Press. “You could have picked a spot on the back of the synagogue.”

Rabbi Rosenblatt pointed out to reporters on the scene that his great-grandfather Yossele Rosenblatt had once been the cantor the Bornplatz Synagogue that burned down during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Hamburg, Germany.

“I thought he was the last rabbi in our family to have to deal with a synagogue that was going to be torched,” he said. “I guess I was mistaken.”

Rabbi Rosenblatt told The CJN that the act was not unexpected.

“When our society tolerates overt acts of antisemitism from certain groups, and when such expressions and acts are allowed to go unchallenged and unpunished, then these groups will continue to push the limits. We should not be surprised by what has happened.”

He said he was expecting more people than usual to attend services over Shabbat to support the synagogue. The larger community has also reached out after hearing about the suspected arson.

“We have received a lot of expressions of support from the broader (non-Jewish) community.  They are outraged by what has occurred.  We need to understand that we do have allies who also want to ensure that Canada remains the country we want it to be.”

Hate crimes have risen by 62 percent in 2023 in Vancouver, compared to the previous year, Ezra Shanken, CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, said in his weekly community email.

Since Oct. 7, the community is spending $100,000 a month for security for schools, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, he wrote.

Jewish schools in Toronto and Montreal had bullets fired at their doors in the past week. Police in those cities have yet to identify suspects related to these recent incidents.

Deborah Lyons, the special envoy for combatting antisemitism, noted the attacks in Canada’s three largest cities in a statement posted to social media:

“Every level of government must use the levers at their disposal to deal with this emergency. That means enforcing the law—not allowing incidents of hate to go unanswered. It means that incitement and violent rhetoric must be met with consequences. It means that capitulation to unreasonable or threatening demands must end.”

With files from Sam Margolis.