July 25, 2024
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Rutherford Firebomber’s Conviction Marks First Use of Anti-Terrorism Statute in Bergen County

Anthony Graziano is a terrorist. The Lodi man was convicted of terrorism for vandalizing synagogues and then firebombing the Rutherford residence of Rabbi Nosson Schuman and his family—he is the first person in Bergen County to be tried under the state’s anti-terrorism statute. This post-9/11 law requires the finding that five or more people were terrorized by the crime or that it was carried out to promote terror. Graziano was found guilty last month on 20 counts overall, but was acquitted of aggravated arson and attempted murder.

In January of 2012, as the rabbi and his family slept, Graziano, allegedly along with his friend Aakash Dalal (who will be tried separately), threw molotov cocktails and lit aerosol canisters through the window of the master bedroom of the family’s home, located above Congregation Beth El on Montross Avenue. The incendiary devices melted the blinds and set fire to the bedding. At the time, it was assumed by many that the event was a hate crime and possibly an attempted homicide.

The firebombing followed other incidents targeting Bergen County synagogues—a suspicious fire at Congregation K’Hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus and two anti-Semitic graffiti incidents in Maywood and Hackensack—and the crimes shattered the peaceful existence that residents of these communities had come to expect.

Rabbi Richard Kirsch, past rabbi of Congregation Beth El, expressed his shock at the community’s loss of innocence. “We spent five years in Rutherford, living in the very same apartment where Rabbi Schuman and his family lived. We would never have imagined that something like this could happen there. We always felt safe,” Kirsch noted.

Facebook posts at the time expressed horror and outrage that such a thing could happen in such a quiet, peaceful community. The Saturday night immediately following the attack, the community rallied in a show of support at an interfaith ceremony hosted by Felician College in Rutherford, emphasizing the camaraderie among individuals and groups who had always coexisted peacefully in the town.

When Graziano was arrested two weeks after the attack, the community breathed an uneasy sigh of relief that the immediate threat was behind them. However, many feared that life in this previously idyllic town would never truly be the same. How long would it take for people to stop looking over their shoulders?

“The entire Bergen County Jewish community was living in fear. No one knew whether the firebombing and hate graffiti would become the new norm in our area,” said Jonathan Vogel, a Bergen County resident.

Said Adam Wolf, who grew up in Rutherford and whose parents still attended Congregation Beth El at the time of the attack, “That is the shul where I was bar mitzvahed. My folks still live there. The incident didn’t change my perception of the town, with the exception of after—when a huge part of the town came together to condemn the bombing. Lots of letters and support from churches, etc., and a ‘Night of Unity’ sponsored by the town.”

“At the insistence of every law enforcement agency from the Rutherford Police Department to the Office of Homeland Security, a video surveillance system was installed. Donations large and small came in from churches and individuals spanning all faiths,” added Larry Goldberg, current president of the synagogue.

The new security system exemplified what appeared to be the new world order. Was Rutherford still safe? Of course it was. Was the post-January 2012 Bergen County Jewish community the same as it had been before? Perhaps not. It had experienced a direct hit not once, but on four separate occasions. The Jewish community may have been down, but as displayed through the outpouring of community support, it was not out.

It was that support that allowed the community to heal. The bonding with neighbors, some vastly different from themselves, helped Rutherford and its surrounding towns’ residents learn a simple truth. Many, in fact most, people condemn terror.

Graziano failed. He did not destroy a community. Rather, he allowed the greater community to show its true colors as residents came out in droves to lend support, donate money or just provide a helping hand or strong shoulder.

Remembering the greater community’s support, and commending the efforts of law enforcement officials, Goldberg noted, “A ceremony was held at the shul to present a plaque of appreciation to the Rutherford Police Department. The following year, the first annual public menorah lighting ceremony took place at the shul, honoring the local chiefs of police, religious and educational leaders in the community.”

“Thankfully, the police did an outstanding job arresting those responsible in a very short amount of time. This attack, so close to home, brought the realization that without the help of law enforcement, anti-Semitic acts can very quickly shatter the safe feel of our communities. Thank God for the excellent work of our Bergen County police officers, detectives and everyone at the prosecutor’s office. It’s important for every rabbi, every Jewish institution and every Jew in Bergen County to say thank you and recognize those officers as the heroes they are for our community,” said Vogel.

Anthony Graziano is a terrorist but, thanks to the hard work of many, he is now a convicted terrorist and we are safer because of it.

By Jill Kirsch

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