Police investigate attack on Michigan synagogue members by 'Jew hater'

Originally posted by Detroit Free Press

Police are investigating what witnesses said was an antisemitic attack against two Jewish women at a synagogue in Oak Park by a man who called himself a "Jew hater."

At about 9 a.m. last Thursday, a man driving in a Chevy SUV pulled up into a parking lot outside Congregation Beth Shalom, a Jewish congregation in Oak Park, said Oak Park Police Lt. Ryan Bolton. During the incident, he shouted at a synagogue member, calling her a "baby killer" and using an epithet, then attacked a synagogue employee with an object that hit her, Bolton said. He fled before police arrived.

Bolton said police are trying to locate the vehicle the suspect drove in, described as a 2008 to 2012 Chevy Traverse, dark in color — black, possibly blue — with a heavy dent on the front passenger door.

"It was driven by a white male with dark hair and a long beard," Bolton said.

Rabbi Robert Gamer, the religious leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, said the incident took place near the entrance of his congregation. The suspect spewed obscenities and threw an object at a person, he said.

The incident comes at a time of concern about antisemitism among many in the Jewish community. President Joe Biden delivered a speech Tuesday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Annual Days of Remembrance Ceremony about the threats that Jews are currently facing. Knollwood Country Club, a predominantly Jewish country club in West Bloomfield, was vandalized in February. In April 2023, a Royal Oak synagogue, The Woodward Avenue Shul, was vandalized and in December 2022, a man drove to Temple Beth El, a Bloomfield Township synagogue, yelling antisemitic remarks at parents and children.

"It was very upsetting," recalled Rabbi Emeritus David Nelson, 85, of Congregation Beth Shalom, who witnessed the incident last week along with his wife, Alicia Nelson. The couple were in a parking lot outside the synagogue to drop off some supplies at his office when the suspect "pulled up right behind me and then said to me ... 'How are you doing today, baby killer?" Alicia Nelson said.

"As I turned to look at him, he sped away and shouted 'f------ bitch,'" Nelson said.

The suspect then drove into a different parking lot across the street. After another employee of the synagogue drove up to the synagogue's parking lot, he started to shout at her and threw something that appeared to be a sock with an object inside it. The sock with the object inside bounced off the employee and did not injure her, said Nelson and police.

"It hit her and bounced off onto the ground," Nelson said. The object was taken by Oak Park police as evidence.

"We were too far away so I did not hear what he said to her, but she said he shouted some obscenities and told me about Gaza and Palestine," Nelson said. She added that the woman said the man called himself a “Jew hater” during the attack.

“He made a reference to something about (being a) ‘Jew hater,’” Bolton said. “I don't know the context of that, but we are currently investigating it.”

Bolton said their investigation did not indicate the suspect said anything about Gaza or Palestinians.

Alicia Nelson said that video footage shows the suspect was waiting in the second parking lot before attacking again.

"He obviously was not satisfied that he had had enough of an interaction" with me, she said. "So he had pulled into the parking lot across the street. ... And he was waiting because he wanted more of an encounter."

Nelson said she was exiting the building when she saw him again.

"I recognized the car immediately and started running towards her and started shouting, take a picture of his license (plate)," she said.

The synagogue said in a statement to the congregation that "we take the security and safety of the Beth Shalom community seriously and we are always evaluating our security procedures. The leadership of (Congregation Beth Shalom) is very grateful to the Oak Park Police for their quick response to the scene."

Rabbi Emeritus David Nelson, who led the synagogue for 35 years before retiring, said antisemitism today is the worst he's seen in his career.

"I cannot remember a time in my life when they were saying these kinds of antisemitic rantings," he said. "More antisemitism than I've seen in my entire life."

Lt. Ryan Bolton of Oak Park Police said anyone with information about the incident, the suspect, or the SUV he was driving can call police at: 248-691-7511.