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'We're glad we didn't wake up to a pile of ashes': Vancouver synagogue's doors set on fire

"This was an act against a defenceless building; it's cowardly but we can't let it keep people away," says Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt following an attempt to torch his synagogue.

The rabbi of a Vancouver synagogue that had its front doors set on fire Thursday evening says the incident has prompted an unthinkable reality for he, his family and congregation.

“My great grandfather was the cantor of a synagogue that burned down on Kristallnacht and I thought he was the last rabbi in our family to have to deal with a synagogue that was going to be torched. I guess I was sadly mistaken,” said Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt Friday morning outside Schara Tzedeck Synagogue’s torched doors on Oak Street at West 18th Avenue.

Rosenblatt said he had just returned home from a social event at the synagogue and recounted what he was told happened.

“There was a bang; it sort of sounded like a car backfiring and people didn’t think much of it, as that happens occasionally. And then a passerby drives by and says, ‘You know, your building’s on fire,’” said Rosenblatt, who expressed shock at the openness of the attack.

“We are on Oak Street. Someone decided it was OK to just walk up these stairs,” and light a fire at the doors, producing a fire Rosenblatt said could have spread much more had people not been present to extinguish it.

“We’re glad we didn’t wake up to a pile of ashes,” he said.

The Vancouver Police Department stated Friday morning it has launched an investigation and “mobilized additional officers to Jewish community centres, schools, and religious institutions.”

“This fire was intentionally set at a place of worship for the Jewish community,” stated Const. Tania Visintin. “While we collect evidence to identify the person responsible, we’re also working closely with faith leaders and community members to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Vancouver police and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services responded around 10 p.m. Thursday, according to Visintin’s statement.

Investigators say they believe an accelerant was used to light a fire at the front of the building.

VPD’s Major Crime Section is leading a criminal investigation, and officers from VPD’s Diversity, Community and Indigenous Relations Section are conducting extensive community outreach, said Visintin.

Rosenblatt said the incident is part of a rising tide of antisemitism being witnessed in Canada and called on society and government leaders to denounce and deter the acts.

“We have this memory as Jews of being a minority and the world having permission to treat us as they wish. Unfortunately, the past six or seven months in Canada have been exactly the same way. It seems to be there’s a new permission structure; you’re allowed to exclude Jews from buildings, allowed to create blacklists of people who support Jewish self-defence in the state of Israel,” said Rosenblatt.

“We need our society and our government to take antisemitism seriously. It’s not listed on DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) structures and you won’t see it on discrimination surveys. I realize Jews blend into society in very easy ways but you can see right here; this happened because of very real hatred… across all levels of government we need protection,” said Rosenblatt.

The rabbi said the best thing for his community to do is to keep showing up to services and events.

"The more this building is filled, the more people are going to be afraid to do something like this. This was an act against a defenceless building; it's cowardly but we can't let it keep people away," he said.

The incident was denounced by B.C. Premier David Eby and Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim in statements posted online.

“To our Jewish community — we stand shoulder to shoulder with you. Let there be no doubt: this was a hateful act of antisemitism. Together, we will rise above this act of hate and continue to work towards a city where everyone feels safe and respected,” said Sim.

“This disgusting act of antisemitism is reprehensible and has absolutely no place in B.C.,” stated Eby on X, formerly Twitter.

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Video produced by Alanna Kelly