Suspect charged with arson, but not hate crime, over Florida Chabad center blaze

No injuries reported, but parts of building badly damaged; congregants say homeless man arrested for attack should face hate crime rap

Rabbi Chaim Slavaticki stands next to the fire-damaged Las Olas Jewish Center on March 18, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (AP Photo/Terry Spencer)
Rabbi Chaim Slavaticki stands next to the fire-damaged Las Olas Jewish Center on March 18, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (AP Photo/Terry Spencer)

JTA – A Chabad house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was damaged in a suspected arson attack over the weekend, and local authorities have arrested a 50-year-old man they believe to be responsible.

The rabbi of the Las Olas Chabad Jewish Community Center told local news that he was alerted to the fire Saturday morning, and that security camera footage showed a man lighting the rabbi’s van on fire after first attempting to light the building itself on fire.

No one was injured, Rabbi Chaim Slavaticki said, but the kosher kitchen was destroyed and there was smoke damage to the Torah and some elements of the building. He said the only object that survived from a minivan burned on the premises was a prayer book, which was barely damaged.

The rest of the building will be closed for at least several weeks. Slavaticki and his staff are looking for nearby locations to relocate the center’s programs.

The fire occurred hours before scheduled Shabbat morning services, which the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation wound up holding outside, Slavaticki said.

The suspect, Scott Hannaford, had run-ins with the rabbi and his wife in the past, according to Slavaticki, who said Hannaford has screamed at his family and blocked their vehicle’s path near the synagogue.

Police charged Hannaford with two counts of arson, criminal mischief and possession of cocaine but said they would not charge him with a hate crime because they considered the arson to be an isolated incident and said that Hannaford is a homeless man “who appears to suffer from mental illness.”

Slavaticki and other Chabad congregants, however, believe the alleged actions merit a hate crime charge. “It was a clearly targeted attack on our facility and our Community,” the center said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Dean Myerlow, who is involved with the Chabad, told local news, “The individual that perpetrated this crime needs to have the book thrown at him. This is not an accident. Our congregation has nowhere to worship, so this is a barbaric act.”

“We are still in shock that such a thing could happen at a community center that is a light and helps so many different people from so many different walks of life,” Slavatacki told local news outlets. But he also said he had hope because a prayer book sitting inside his van was still intact after the fire: “This is a hug from God, and God is telling us to all stand together.”

This photo released by the Broward Sheriff’s Office shows Scott Hannaford, 50, who is charged with setting a fire that severely damaged a Jewish center on Saturday, March 16, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Broward Sheriff’s Office via AP)

As particularly visible and often accessible spaces of Jewish worship, Chabad houses have been targets of vandalism in the past. Last year a man was arrested after attempting to break into a different Chabad house in Florida. In general, reports of antisemitic incidents including attacks on synagogues have gone drastically up since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

The Las Olas Chabad house launched an online fundraiser in an effort to raise $1 million to repair the damage. It has raised over $74,000 as of press time.

Slavaticki said while insurance might cover some of the damage, members of the community and from as far away as Japan have reached out to assist with the repairs.

“Our unity is our strength. This place is going to increase to be a greater light for the people around us. We pray for better days,” he said.

AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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