Suspect in Nessah religious vandalism incident had no known ties to hate groups, BHPD says

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Suspect in Nessah religious vandalism incident had no known ties to hate groups, BHPD says

LATE: On the day of the vandalism, Nessah was open for Mincha, but employees continued cleaning and organizing the synagogue at 7:55 pm.

LATE: On the day of the vandalism, Nessah was open for Mincha, but employees continued cleaning and organizing the synagogue at 7:55 pm.

BP Photo by Liad Machmali

LATE: On the day of the vandalism, Nessah was open for Mincha, but employees continued cleaning and organizing the synagogue at 7:55 pm.

BP Photo by Liad Machmali

BP Photo by Liad Machmali

LATE: On the day of the vandalism, Nessah was open for Mincha, but employees continued cleaning and organizing the synagogue at 7:55 pm.

By Liad Machmali, Shalhevet High School

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Banging on his door around 7 a.m. on Saturday Dec. 14, a congregant waited anxiously to inform Rabbi David Shofet that it was not going to be a typical Shabbat morning at Nessah, their synagogue, located on Rexford Drive just south of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

The night before, someone had entered and thrown Torah scrolls, chumashim and prayer books on the floor.  Some of the books were torn. At least eight Torahs had been dropped and unrolled. The sanctuary was in disarray.

Rabbi Shofet quickly got dressed and headed to the synagogue, where he could see the vandalism from the front door.

“I remember I saw the precious Sifrei Torah that we had are torn,” Rabbi Shofet told the Boiling Point in an interview. “I couldn’t tolerate it, I started crying. It’s the most precious thing that we have.”

It was only three days until the Beverly Hills Police Department named Anton Nathaniel Redding, 24, as a suspect. Officers said he was identified from film on Nessah security cameras, which also showed that the vandalism took place at 2 a.m.

A Dec. 18 BHPD news release said the security footage captured Mr. Redding fleeing the scene in a taxi and heading to the Los Angeles International Airport. It said he was tracked to Kona, Hawaii and arrested there, and that Mr. Redding is from Millersville, Pennsylvania.

I started crying. It’s the most precious thing that we have.”

— Rabbi David Shofet, Chief Rabbi of Nessah

He is now in custody at the Men’s Central Jail, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Charges filed against him are vandalism of a religious property and commercial burglary, both with a penalty enhancement for a hate crime, all stemming from his actions at Nessah. Mr. Redding pleaded not-guilty at his arraignment and is scheduled to go back to court on Jan. 30.

But while the vandalism shocked and frightened Nessah congregants and others in the area, the suspect’s motive is still under investigation.

According to Beverly Hills Police Lieutenant Elisabeth Albanese, who investigated the scene, the suspect also walked on Rexford Drive and vandalized the exterior of buildings in the alley between Rexford and Elm.

There was a broken gate reported near an apartment building, and some plants and pots were disturbed, said Lt. Albanese. After walking around on Elm Street, the suspect allegedly forced his way into the synagogue, she said.

Rabbi Shofet said someone is usually assigned to turn Nessah’s alarm on Friday night but forgot.

Lt. Albanese said it is not yet known if Mr. Redding’s actions were driven by antisemitism. She said the police had found no evidence of his belonging to any hate groups or visiting any hate-group websites.

“That’s part of the investigation, that’s still ongoing,” said Lt. Albanese.

She said the nature of the damage he caused suggested hate as a motive.

“He was charged with a hate crime,” Lt. Albanese said, which “revolves around the suspect’s motivation for committing the crime to the other crimes, being the vandalism and the burglary.  So that’s part of the investigation that’s ongoing, to determine motivation.”

Rabbi Shofet says the motive was obvious because the damage was directed towards Torah scrolls and holy Jewish books.

“I know the history of Jewish people in Europe and I saw all of this and it reminded me of Kristallnacht in Germany,” Rabbi Shofet said. “They did the same thing to the Jewish properties and synagogues. It was a hate crime because the person knew what to do in order to hurt us.

“You have to say that Baruch Hashem, it could be much, much worse,” Rabbi Shofet said. “I think he wasn’t a trained terrorist. A trained terrorist comes in and puts a bomb or hides and in the morning when there are many congregants, they start with the shotgun or I don’t know what. It wasn’t, it was a hate crime.”

A BHPD media release published on the day of the break-in stated that on Saturday morning at around 7 a.m., a Nessah employee arrived for work and promptly called the police after seeing the open entrance and damaged items inside.

According to Rabbi Shofet, he saw only a glimpse of the scene, because then the police told everyone inside to evacuate in order to protect all possible evidence for the investigation. He did not know which employee called the police.

Nessah could not have its morning services, but held afternoon services — Mincha and Maariv — on Saturday as scheduled.

BP Photo by Liad Machmali
SURVEILLANCE: A security camera helped the police locate the suspect.

Still, at 8 p.m. Saturday night, three workers could still be seen cleaning up the sanctuary.  Boiling Point reporters tried to speak with them but they did not want to be interviewed.

Mr. Redding was arraigned at the Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles on Dec. 23, once extradition was approved to bring him from Hawaii to Los Angeles. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

A Dec.18 BHPD news release states “the charges filed include a penalty enhancement for a Hate Crime under §422.75(a) of the California Penal Code,” it says.

“Except in the case of a person punished under Section 422.7, a person who commits a felony that is a hate crime or attempts to commit a felony that is a hate crime shall receive an additional term of one, two, or three years in the state prison, at the court’s discretion,” the section states.

According to Nessah’s website, the synagogue was established by Rabbi David Shofet in 1980, after the Islamic revolution in Iran caused most Jews to emigrate, many to Los Angeles, providing a place for many Iranian Jews and others to pray in Beverly Hills. Their prayer follows the Mizrahi style–the tradition of Jews from the Middle East.

Rabbi Shofet said eight or nine Sifrei Torah out of 24 or 25 the shul owns were dropped, unrolled, and torn on the night of the vandalism. Two were kosher Torahs that were read from regularly, he said, and the rest were not, meaning that they contained a mistake, such as a smudge, spelling error, or a letter being rubbed off, making them not valid for public reading.

In respect of the dropped Sifrei Torah, Rabbi Shofet called for a fast on Dec. 19 among the Nessah congregation and invited the rest of the Los Angeles Jewish community to join it, as well as a communal Mincha service at Nessah at 3 p.m.

Rabbi Shofet felt that the calling of a fast was necessary.

“When you see something like that, you have to do something,” he said. “I had to do something. Yes, halachically when you are present in the falling of a Sefer Torah, you have to fast, but even when it is very bad and you see a Torah on the floor, we need to do something.”

Shalhevet Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Abraham Lieberman stated that the defaming of a Sefer Torah must always have something of significance done to rectify it, even if there were no witnesses to the violation, because of the scroll’s holiness.

“Because the Torah is the inheritance of the entire Jewish people, when the act is public all need to participate in the pain of its desecration,” Rabbi Lieberman said. “Even though [the scroll] might not be kosher, that applies to using it to read from, but its holiness remains intact.”

Shalhevet students and faculty have close connections with Nessah Synagogue.

Junior Ariella Khakshooy, who lives on Rexford Drive, said her family had lunch earlier than usual on the Saturday of the vandalism because Chabad of Beverly Hills ended earlier and her dad went there after finding out that Nessah would be closed for the morning. She said her dad observed the fast.

Ariella said the vandalism was unexpected due to the security the synagogue has.

“I feel like it shouldn’t be happening, especially here,” Ariella said. “You would think that it wouldn’t happen because they have security and all these things, but no one even expects to have security at 2 a.m. on a random night.”

Freshman Josh Askari lives in Beverly Hills and actively goes to Nessah for services. He believes that all synagogue’s security should not allow something like this to happen.

“I’m not somewhere where I’m scared to walk in the street” in Beverly Hills, said Josh. “But I definitely do think that the shuls need more security because I don’t think that some guy should be able to walk in and just vandalize an entire shul.”

Dean of Student Life Dr. Jonathan Ravanshenas lives on Rexford Drive. Both of his parents attend Nessah services regularly and his father teaches classes there.

“It feels very close to home,” Dr. Ravanshenas said. “We hear a lot about anti-semitism, sometimes you hear about it in New Jersey, you hear about it across the country. Sometimes it feels distanced or removed. This just felt like wow, it’s right here, on my block.”

This story was originally published on The Boiling Point on January 17, 2020.