Image: Burned synagogue
Stuart Ramson  /  AP
Morris Jacobowitz of the Chaverim Volunteer Emergency Services carries the Torah, which had been housed in a safe, as he leaves the burned ruins of the Bais Yehudi synagogue in Monsey, N.Y., on Monday.
updated 4/2/2007 9:14:08 PM ET 2007-04-03T01:14:08

A synagogue of ultra-Orthodox Jews was destroyed by fire on the eve of Passover, raising suspicions Monday that the blaze was deliberately set to target members who participated in an Iranian-led conference on the denial of the Holocaust.

No one was injured late Sunday when flames gutted the three-story building of the group Neturei Karta. A senior rabbi and his family who lived on the top floor were not home.

But suspicion immediately fell on Jewish critics of the group, which has always been a source of tension in this heavily Jewish community north of New York City because of its anti-Israel views. The group routinely burns the Israeli flag and prays for an end to the Jewish state.

“They have threatened us, they have warned us, they have harassed us,” said Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, referring to critics. “This fire is a desecration of God’s name.”

Investigators initially described the blaze as suspicious. But they found no sign of accelerants Monday in the charred house or any other indication of arson. Still, authorities had not ruled anything out.

“They are crazy, but no one should burn down their synagogue,” Holocaust survivor Shei Kormblue said as his family members were busy making matzo for Passover. “God will punish whoever needs punishment. It’s not up to us.”

'A part of our heart and soul'
On Monday, charred prayer books were strewn across the synagogue’s front lawn. The writing works of the rabbi who lived there were believed to be destroyed.

Weiss called it a “tragedy” that so many holy books went up in flames. “A part of our heart and soul was taken away,” he said.

The Neturei Karta has been the target of threats in the past. Members oppose Israel because they believe there should not be a Jewish state until the Messiah comes and leads them to the promised land. They do not dispute that the Holocaust took place, but they believe Israelis have used the Holocaust to gain sympathy and advantage.

Neturei Karta members are often seen wearing black hats, coats and long, unruly beards, and heckling marchers in annual Israel Day parades in New York. They have appeared publicly with many critics of Israel, including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It was the trip to Iran late last year by five members of the group that caused renewed outrage. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a “myth” and said Israel should be “wiped off the face of the map.” The visit also came amid fears that Iran may want to attack Israel.

Still, with a membership estimated to be only in the thousands, the Neturei Karta are generally tolerated or ignored, although members were greeted with a large protest at the Monsey synagogue after returning from Iran.

“Ninety-five percent of us in the community don’t agree with them, but we don’t shun them,” said David Abromevitz. “We know who they are. They send their kids to our schools and shop in our stores.”

Monsey is an ultra-Orthodox community about 35 miles north of New York City. The streets are dotted with signs in both Hebrew and English, and businesses with names like “Jerusalem Auto Body” and “Kol Tov Pizzeria” are a frequent sight.

Neturei Karta members are often confused with the Satmars, who have a huge community in the nearby village of Kiryas Joel. But there is no connection between the two groups.

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