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Arson suspected in synagogue library fire

SASKATOON - The city's Jewish community was struggling to understand Saturday why someone would start a fire in their synagogue library, destroying thousands of irreplaceable books.

molotov cocktail Damaged Synagogue

"They are horrified by it," said Grant Scharfstein, a trustee at the Congregation Agudas Israel synagogue and community centre. "We've lost our library and close to 3,000 books."

Police said the fire broke out shortly before midnight Friday in the basement library.

Inside burnt Synagogue

"We believe that a flammable object was thrown through the basement window," said Sgt. Keith Atkinson of the Saskatoon police. "Right now we can't be sure what set the fire.

"There were some remnants of glass in there and our investigators are examining them to be certain."

Officers found a bottle containing a flammable liquid at the scene and are hoping it will have fingerprints on it, he said.

Menorah

As of Saturday evening, police had found little to link the attack to the ongoing violence in the Middle East, but it's something that will be considered, Sgt. Atkinson said.

"We're treating it like any other arson at this point, but our investigators aren't ignorant of the fact that there are world events that are taking place right now that this may be linked to."

It's something members of the synagogue are considering as well.

"We won't speculate, but certainly it would be silly to say that we haven't thought about it," Mr. Scharfstein said. "It has crossed a lot of people's minds that it might be connected with the Middle East, but, until we know who did it, we will never know why or what connection, if any, it had."

Fire officials said damage from the blaze was contained mainly to the one room.

Damaged Synagogue

"Within 10 minutes or so, we had it knocked down," said assistant fire chief Bob Fawcett. "There was no damage to the main floor, except for a little smoke."

Mr. Scharfstein said the community was able to hold services Saturday morning and there was a large turnout. Most were there to show support.

"They feel violated by it," Mr. Scharfstein said. "But this is not going to stop us."

Damage is pegged at about $100,000 for the materials inside the library and about $30,000 to the building.

Mr. Scharfstein said staff have already begun the clean-up process and were sorting through the damaged material Saturday night so that on Monday experts can determine what can be salvaged.

"We had some religious books there that were 150 years old that have been lost and a lot of archives of our community history," he said. "There were a lot of valuable irreplaceable books that disappeared in the fire."

Last month, one of Toronto's oldest synagogues was broken into and books were set ablaze. The fire caused about $100,000 in damage.