The car of David Kushner, who serves as the stand-in rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom, was destroyed in what is believed to be an incident of arson over Rosh Hashanah.
Considering that David Kushner’s Ford Explorer exploded over the Rosh Hashanah holiday in a suspected arson incident, the Northeast Philadelphia resident seems to be handling the stress with a positive attitude.
“I wanted to start off the year with a bang — just a different kind of bang,” Kushner quipped.
Since they were married 13 years ago, Kushner and wife, Elyssa, have been commuting to Congregation Rodef Sholom in Atlantic City for Shabbat and holiday services, carrying on her side of the family’s multigenerational tradition of attending the synagogue.
They are so integrated into the community that Kushner, even though he has never officially been ordained, took over rabbinical duties at the Orthodox shul in January of this year, when the synagogue’s previous rabbi retired.
On Sept. 25, long after Erev Rosh Hashanah services had ended, Kushner said he was told by police, his car exploded at 2 a.m. It caused severe damage to the parking lot and outer walls of the synagogue.
He didn’t learn about the episode until his arrival at the synagogue the following morning for the holiday prayer services.
“The car had been towed overnight immediately after the incident by the fire department for further investigation, so I saw charred remains, I saw the damage to the building, my burnt license plate was on the ground,” said Kushner, who runs a wedding hall in Lakewood, N.J., during the week.
Policemen and firemen were taking the blaze “very seriously” and indicated that “it is very possibly a hate crime,” Kushner said. The investigators working the case were not immediately available for comment.
Kushner said that he went through a myriad of emotions during Rosh Hashanah services after the incident.
“My first reaction was just shock and disbelief — it took me awhile to really comprehend it intellectually, then I was just thankful nobody got physically hurt and that the damage to the shul was not worse,” he said. “But as davening went on throughout the day and the crowd in the shul grew — to watch the faces and to see the emotions come to life of some of the older congregation members, some of whom are Holocaust survivors, that were very, very visibly moved in a very emotional and a very fearful way, was to me worse than the physical damage.”
The synagogue hasn’t had any previous occurrences of anti-Semitism, though Kushner said he has personally experienced the occasional shouting of slurs from the window of a passing vehicle.
At the end of services, synagogue president Bruce Ostrow made a public announcement about the attack, but his ability to answer questions was limited because the investigation is still underway.
The fire marshal’s report will likely be filed at the end of this week or at the beginning of next week, Kushner said.
Kushner said that fortunately he had driven down to Atlantic City the day before Rosh Hashanah with his two children, ages 7 and 5, who both attend Politz Hebrew Academy. His wife had driven down to the shore in their other car the next day, so the family was able to return home after the long weekend and attempt to resume their routine.
“I have a very large network of friends and acquaintances, and my phone, unfortunately — I wish it were for better reasons — has been ringing off the hook,” Kushner added. “Such a physical escalation in what has the very real potential to be a showing of anti-Semitism is very concerning.”
Nancy Baron-Baer, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director, said she had been in touch with both Atlantic City police and Kushner. She said she found the boldness of the incident to be particularly disturbing.
“The fact that in America in 2014, a rabbi’s car parked at his synagogue during Rosh Hashanah services, could be engulfed in flames and the subject of arson is beyond comprehension,” said Baron-Baer.
“A crime like this affects not just the rabbi, but the rabbi’s congregation and the broader Atlantic City community.”
Though there isn’t an expectation of further incidents over the coming holidays, Baron-Baer said that the security of Jewish institutions shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Synagogues need to be alert every day — security is not just something you do in reaction to a horrific act,” Baron-Baer said. “It’s something you do every day to help avoid the horrific act.”