Riverdale’s Jews Are Shaken but Stronger

After Foiled Plot, ‘We’re All in This Together,’ Says a Rabbi

By Rebecca Dube

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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Rabbi Judith Lewis of the Riverdale Temple asked the two conversion candidates about to enter the mikveh: Are you sure you want to do this?

It’s not an uncommon question for converts to Judaism, but it was especially relevant at that very moment. This was one day after four men were arrested in the Bronx and charged with an ambitious if ultimately ineffectual plot to blow up the Riverdale Temple, which is a Reform congregation, and the Riverdale Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox synagogue. The terror suspects also had planned to shoot down American military aircraft, according to law enforcement officials.

In response to Lewis’s question, convert Phil Clarke didn’t hesitate. “More so now than ever,” he told the rabbi.

“I wasn’t scared. To me, it reaffirmed my faith in God,” Clarke told the Forward. He and his fellow conversion candidate both emerged from the mikveh as Jews on May 21, the day after the arrests. “We cannot be moved or change our minds if this is what we believe in,” he said.

And yet, he acknowledged that the standard rabbinic caution to converts about joining a faith that has often been the target of persecution suddenly seemed a lot less abstract.

“It’s a different reality,” Clarke said.

And so everyone is adjusting to the new reality in Riverdale, a prosperous Bronx suburb with a thriving Jewish community known for its diversity and harmony. Residents and religious leaders agree that the threatened attack will only strengthen their community in the long run, but right now there’s no denying that the surfacing of a terror plot in their very backyards weighs heavily on Riverdale residents’ minds.

“It brought back memories,” said Lora Oppenheimer, a Holocaust survivor and Riverdale Jewish Center member. “It’s a wake-up call for people who were too complacent.”

But the memories that struck Oppenheimer evoked gratitude, not fear. Her father died of a heart attack during the first bombing raid of Hanover, when the German police would not allow ambulances through to the Jewish bomb shelter. The heavy police presence guarding her Riverdale synagogue, in contrast, made her feel safe.

“Here, we have the police, the FBI — everyone looking out for us,” Oppenheimer said, referring to the yearlong FBI sting operation that snared the four would-be terrorists. The “bombs” the suspects are accused of planting outside the two synagogues were harmless fakes supplied to them by undercover law enforcement agents.

Still, even the idea of car bombs sitting outside synagogues in New York took some aback.

“I definitely have had people say antisemitic things to me, but I never really worried about my safety,” said Aliza Hausman, a freelance writer and blogger who moved to Riverdale with her husband, a Modern Orthodox rabbinic student, in part because of its peaceful, laid-back vibe. “Someone yelling ‘Jesus-killer’ from across the street is different from someone actually trying to blow you up. It was a real awakening for me.”

Hausman said she has felt hesitant to attend synagogue since the terror plot went public: “I absolutely am afraid of getting blown up. I need a while to wrap my head around this one.”

On the other hand, rabbis at the two targeted synagogues reported heavy attendance on the Friday and Saturday after the terrorism arrests, as a combination of defiance and solidarity drew even the more casual synagogue-goers to services.

“It was a full house,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center. “I don’t think anyone in our community feels like victims. In a crazy sense, it pulled us together and reminded us of how much we care about each other.”

At an interfaith news conference held at the Center the Friday after the arrests, imams, priests and politicians of all stripes voiced support for the targeted synagogues and the larger Jewish community.

One of the ironies of the foiled bomb plot is that the suspects, who were allegedly unconcerned about killing Jews, managed to pick a synagogue where a bomb could have killed a Muslim child, as well.

Last year, the Center welcomed a teenage Muslim exchange student from Indonesia who needed a place to pray during school hours. Dinar Puspita regularly crosses the street from her public school to the synagogue, where she lays her prayer rug in a quiet, sunlit hallway and goes through a 10-minute ritual of saying prayers in Arabic while standing, bowing and kneeling.

Soon, Puspita will be returning to Indonesia, but she continues to pray at the Riverdale Jewish Center, Rosenblatt said, where her presence has been welcomed.

“A shul is first and foremost an installment of the Jewish people, but at the same time, it is God’s house,” Rosenblatt said. “That’s why we offered her a place to come say her prayers. She needed a home away from home.”

In addition to that interfaith hospitality, one notable quality of the Riverdale Jewish community that was mentioned repeatedly in interviews with residents is the cooperation among the different movements. The tension that sometimes characterizes relationships among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews doesn’t exist in Riverdale, community members say — at least not to the same extent it does elsewhere.

“Riverdale really does span the spectrum from Haredi Orthodoxy to Jewish renewal,” said Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and a Riverdale resident for the past 32 years.

“What I really do love about Riverdale is the sense of openness,” Bayme said. He noted that the accused plotters targeted Reform and Modern Orthodox congregations — seemingly drawing no distinctions between the movements.

“In that sense, [the suspects] were right about Jews in Riverdale,” Bayme said. “We don’t discriminate among Jews.”

The ties between various Riverdale synagogues have grown stronger since the plots were foiled, as rabbis and other religious leaders reached out to support Lewis and Rosenblatt.

“Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, we’ve all been attacked,” said Rabbi Barry Katz, spiritual leader of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale. “It is striking. We’re all in this together. The world gets it, even if sometimes we as Jews don’t get it.”

Katz could empathize all too well with Lewis and Rosenblatt; nine years ago, his synagogue was the target of an attempted firebombing. Three men were charged and convicted of hurling Molotov cocktails at the synagogue’s front door, reportedly to protest American Jews’ support of Israel. The attackers smashed a window but didn’t start a fire. The first person to discover the damage, on the morning of Yom Kippur, was a German Holocaust survivor who’d lived through Kristallnacht.

Immediately following the attack, Katz said, his congregation went through feelings that are, by now, familiar to many in Riverdale: shock, numbness, fear, a loss of innocence and gratitude toward law enforcement. He, too, saw an initial bump in attendance at services as people came out to show their support. But as the years went on, and the initial sting and spotlight of the attack faded, the congregation’s membership steadily grew.

“While nothing had changed, everything had changed for us,” Katz said. “The congregation looked at the world differently. The biggest change was a very strong commitment in the shul to working together.”

While the memory of comforting shocked synagogue members on that Yom Kippur in 2000 stays with Katz, he said that his strongest recollection — and one that may give hope to all of Riverdale’s Jews — is the scene that played out at Adath Israel two weeks later, on Simchat Torah. The same elderly members who’d been heartbroken by the attack were dancing with the Torah, laughing and celebrating in the aisles alongside the youngest worshippers, their fear conquered by joy.

“That showed me the resilience of the congregation,” Katz said. “Nevertheless and in spite of it all, we go on. We build our communities.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com.

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