As police continue investigating the fire that engulfed a rabbi's SUV parked outside a synagogue in the early morning hours of Rosh Hashanah, the man who leads the congregation in Atlantic City, New Jersey, has bigger concerns on his mind.
"We have an older congregation, comprised of many Holocaust survivors," Rabbi David Kushner told the Philadelphia Daily News. "To see this during the High Holy Days raised emotions in them that haven't come out for years."
Kushner said he watched the faces of those Holocaust survivors as "davening went on throughout (Thursday) and the crowd in the shul grew" and saw they "were very, very visibly moved in a very emotional and a very fearful way," he told the Jewish Exponent, adding that was "worse than the physical damage."
Kushner said police told him his SUV burst into flames around 2 a.m. Thursday, causing damage to the parking lot as well as the outer walls of the Rodef Shalom Synagogue, the Exponent said. All Kushner saw when he arrived at synagogue for services Thursday were his SUV's license plate and "charred remains," as the fire department had the vehicle towed after the incident, he told the paper.
Kushner told the Daily News that authorities characterized the fire as "suspicious"; he added to the Exponent that police and firefighters were taking the incident “very seriously” and said “it is very possibly a hate crime."
But Atlantic City officials haven't released an official report and didn't respond to the Exponent's requests for comment.
"I think someone picked the car because it was parked at the synagogue during worship," Kushner told the Daily News. "It's almost impossible to say it was a coincidence."
While Kushner is not officially ordained, he and his wife became so close to the community at the Orthodox house of worship that Kushner assumed rabbinical duties in January after the previous rabbi retired, the Exponent noted.
The synagogue hasn’t experienced previous occurrences of anti-Semitism, the Exponent reported, although Kushner said he's heard slurs shouted from passing vehicles. There were no threats regarding the SUV fire, WMGM-TV reported.
In addition to losing his SUV, Kushner said other valuables were destroyed by the fire, including equipment he uses as a volunteer EMT.
“I wanted to start off the year with a bang — just a different kind of bang,” Kushner told the Exponent, trying to inject some humor into the dark incident.
Nancy Baron-Baer, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director, said the act's boldness is troubling.
“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,” Baron-Baer told the Exponent.
“A crime like this affects not just the rabbi, but the rabbi’s congregation and the broader Atlantic City community,” she added.
“Synagogues need to be alert every day — security is not just something you do in reaction to a horrific act,” Baron-Baer told the Exponent. “It’s something you do every day to help avoid the horrific act.”
Meanwhile Kushner is moving forward with hope.
"We're trying to look at this situation positively," Kushner told the Daily News. "The year can only get better from here."