News & Politics » Feature

Fanning the Flames

The firebombing of a West Rogers Park synagogue shows there's no such thing as a simple act of racial violence



By Grant Pick

At eight o' clock on the morning of July 10, 1994, two cars full of old men pulled up at Mikro Kodesh Anshe Tiktin, an orthodox synagogue in the northwest-side Budlong Woods neighborhood. Jewish law requires that a minimum of ten adult males--a minyan--be present in order for services to proceed, and on Sunday mornings at Mikro Kodesh ten men are occasionally hard to come by. There were eight already on this cool and sunny Sunday, and with half an hour to go, they were hopeful.

But when one of them unlocked and opened the front door, their hopes dissipated in a thick cloud of smoke. In search of the fire, Edward Hobfoll, a thick-bodied, white-haired man of 74, walked around to the west side of the building, where on the ledge of a broken basement window he spotted a long-necked bottle stuffed with a rag, smoking steadily. Someone called the police and the fire department.

Isadore Farbstein, Hobfoll's friend and the temple's 74-year-old vice president, arrived at 8:15. "Smoke was still pouring out the door," he recalls, "so much you could hardly see." Fire had darkened the walls of the basement social hall, and the smoke had seeped into the ceiling and floors, into scores of books stored throughout the basement, and worst, into three Torahs in the nearby chapel. Fortunately cement flooring had blocked the flames from spreading to the main sanctuary above. Later the insurance company would put the damage at $52,000, but for the Mikro Kodesh faithful the price was higher than could be expressed in dollars.

The synagogue, whose name refers to the people of Tyczyn, a town in Poland near the Lithuanian border, is traditional orthodox; that is, during worship men wear talliths, or prayer shawls, and say the ancient prayers in Hebrew, but the sexes need not sit apart and a microphone can be used. It was founded in the Maxwell Street area around 1890 and moved to Lawndale in 1924. In the early 1950s, when West Rogers Park was heavily Jewish, Mikro Kodesh merged with another congregation and began building the large brick-and-stone edifice it now occupies on Foster Avenue. Three beautifully rendered stained-glass windows and a Hanukkah menorah face the street, from which passersby can also read a quotation from Exodus: "And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."

In the 1960s Mikro Kodesh had a well-known rabbi, Albert Ellison, and an active Hebrew school; so many members showed up on the high holidays that two services had to be held, one in the sanctuary and a second in the social hall. But as Jews from the area moved north, often to the suburbs, Mikro Kodesh went into decline. Today there is no school, and membership has fallen to 69 families, most of them elderly. The last bar mitzvah was conducted four years ago. Since the congregation employs only a part-time rabbi, elders conduct most services, which even on the Sabbath usually attract no more than 40 participants.

Many of the temple's remaining members are all too familiar with the sentiments that appeared to be behind the firebombing. On another morning, in November 1987, Ed Hobfoll had arrived at his butcher shop on Devon Avenue to find his windows smashed, a swastika scrawled on the front door, and his blue neon Magen David in pieces. A neo-Nazi skinhead, police would discover, had staged a re-creation of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that presaged the Holocaust. Izzy Farbstein had survived the Holocaust itself, jumping from the train on the way to Treblinka, weathering typhus, and fighting with the Polish underground. "For us, this new incident carried a lot of weight," says Hobfoll. "It's serious when here in America you are deprived of the right to pray."

In time, three Middle Eastern immigrants--two young gang members and a jeweler--would be charged with plotting and executing the firebombing. The charges against the jeweler were dropped, but last December, 22-year-old Edmond Hanna and 17-year-old Jami Derywosh pleaded guilty. Farbstein, along with many others in the community, identifies their actions as "anti-Semitism, pure and simple."

But an act of prejudice--be it an assault on a synagogue in Chicago or a black church in the South--is rarely either pure or simple. "The spark of this firebombing may have been bigotry," remarks David Erickson, the judge who handled the Mikro Kodesh case, "but it concerns much more than that."

The firebombing of Mikro Kodesh came as the last in a series of attacks on northwest-side synagogues that began in West Rogers Park in late 1993. The neighborhood, centered a couple miles north of Budlong Woods at Devon and California, is populated by Indians, Palestinians, Assyrians, Croatians, Hispanics, and Greeks as well as Jews, who have been settling in the area since World War II. On a Sunday afternoon, a multilingual chatter fills the air on Devon, where Jews in hats and payes jostle for space with Muslims out for coffee and sari-clad Hindus headed for the groceries east of Western Avenue. "This may be the only area in Chicago where so many different groups coexist," says Avrom Fox, the proprietor of Rosenblum's World of Judaica, a Jewish bookstore in the area. "No matter how positive or negative that is, there will always be tensions."

Many of those tensions relate, as in the Middle East, to the place and status established by the Jews. West Rogers Park contains some 20 synagogues, mostly conservative and orthodox, and several Jewish schools, plus a burgeoning colony of Russian Jews. An estimated one-third of the recently emigrated Russian Jews in the Chicago area reside there; Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), a synagogue and community center established there in 1973, has seen its profile rise as the countries of the former Soviet Union have relaxed their emigration rules.

On November 5, 1993, a Friday night, the FREE building on California north of Devon was found ablaze after Rabbi Shmuel Notick had closed up for the Sabbath and gone home. The fire, assumed immediately to be arson, ruined the shul as well as three handwritten Torahs, considered so sacred in Jewish ritual that they are accorded human qualities. Eight rabbis, Notick among them, spoke at a funeral for the scrolls held that Sunday in an Osco parking lot; they were buried the next day in Waldheim cemetery in Forest Park.

A month later Congregation Nusach Ari, a small temple in Albany Park, saw its roof damaged, a bookcase burned in the sanctuary, and its kitchen scrawled with gang graffiti. And early in the morning on January 28, 1994, fire ravaged a three-story building in West Rogers Park that was being used as an annex for the Chicago Community Kollel, a highly regarded postgraduate institute for Torah studies. Other small fires and a shattered stained-glass window were reported at nearby synagogues.

Theories about what prompted the attacks centered on events in the Middle East. That September, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had agreed on limited self-rule for Palestine with a handshake on the south lawn of the White House. "You had segments who didn't support the peace process, who saw it as a sellout," says Michael Kotzin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a confederation of some 40 Chicago groups. "That could have motivated some individual to act out his passions."

According to both the city Commission on Human Relations and the B'Nai B'Rith Anti-Defamation League, Jewish residents of West Rogers Park and its environs were also experiencing an increase in other affronts--hostile letters, verbal threats, and anti-Semitic vandalism. But the attacks on the temples caused the most alarm. "A synagogue is more than a building or a school. People have the same feeling for the place as they would their home," says Rabbi Leonard Matanky, of Congregation KINS of West Rogers Park, which was hit on the same night as the Kollel. "People have attachments based on a bris, a bar mitzvah, or a wedding--it's an extension of a Jew's very soul. Plus, whenever a synagogue is attacked, it dredges up instances of anti-Semitism from history." North-side synagogues boosted their security, installing alarms and locking their buildings during daylight, and the Jewish Federation offered a $10,000 reward in the Kollel case.

An intense police dragnet quickly yielded arrests in the initial incidents. The young men who started the FREE blaze, Jason Wiederhold and Amyn Kapadia, had set out to plunder the synagogue because, says Louis Rosen, a Chicago bomb-and-arson detective assigned to the fires, "they knew no one would be there on a Friday night, that the place was an easy hit." They'd already taken out a computer and phones, placing them in a yard across the alley, when they began fooling around with cleaning fluid and a lighter near a rack containing prayer shawls. "They were trying to outdo one another," says Rosen. "One thing led to another, and soon they had a fire that had gotten out of hand."

The culprits in the sacking of Nusach Ari were juveniles--whites, blacks, and Hispanics aged 12 to 16. A couple of the kids had been members of a gang called the Harrison Gents, says Rosen, "punks, basically out to disregard other people's property."

The story behind the Kollel fire was the most disturbing. All three people convicted of the arson--brothers Abdelsalem and Yousef Khalil, then 20 and 18, and their 17-year-old friend Yasir Yasin--were of Palestinian descent. Yasin, then a student at the alternative Cosmopolitan Preparatory School downtown, said in his statement to police that he, the Khalils, and a fourth young man were driving around West Rogers Park before dawn on January 28, discussing setting the Kollel ablaze: "We are going to torch that Jewish church because those fucking Jews are killing our people in Palestine. We ought to kill those Jews for ruining our country. At the very least we can light their temple." After dropping off the fourth guy, who balked at participating, they drove to the Kollel, where they broke a window, poured gasoline into the building, and threw a lit match in after it.

The West Rogers Park Jews, led by Rabbi Alan Abramson of Anshe Motele Congregation, came by chartered bus to maintain a vigil at hearings on the case against Yasin and the Khalil brothers. In July, with the trial imminent in Skokie, another firebomb hit--this one at Mikro Kodesh Anshe Tiktin.

In the wee hours of November 9, 1994, Jami Derywosh, a wiry 17-year-old also known as "Johnny," had dropped off his girlfriend after a movie and was playing video games at the Mr. Submarine on Devon, which was known as a gathering spot for his gang, the Assyrian Kings. Louis Rosen, fellow detective Fred Wheat, and a district officer had been searching for Jami all day, and when they saw the back of his neck, or rather the distinctive dragon tattooed across it, they knew they'd found him.

"Do they call you Joker?" Rosen whispered in his ear. The young man acknowledged that people did. Jami now says the police officers addressed him in honeyed voices, "acting like they were my friends and all." He agreed to accompany them to the police bomb-and-arson unit at 11th and State for questioning in the firebombing of Mikro Kodesh, tossing his car keys to a friend on the way out.

In a series of interviews with gang members in the West Rogers Park area, according to Rosen, he and Wheat had learned that the leader of the Assyrian Kings, Benjamin Oshana, had passed the word to members of his gang that a local jeweler wanted someone to firebomb a synagogue to cast doubt on the guilt of Yasin and the Khalils, all of whom were then in custody. "This was a scheme to make it look like the real arsonists in their case were out and about," says Rosen. He says Oshana, known as "Benji," had informed his followers that the gang wouldn't officially condone arson for hire, but that if any individual wanted to make a contract with the jeweler, the opportunity was available.

According to testimony by Wheat, an interview with Esho Yousif, leader of a Peterson Avenue-based gang called the Green Briar Boys, led the detectives to Jami. "Among these gangs it was like 1-800-CHAT," says Joe Schober, an officer with the 24th District who helped investigate the synagogue cases. "They are always worried about something they've done recently--or not so recently," adds Rosen. Yousif had been arrested about 25 times in the previous eight years, judging by the list of charges on file under his name at the Cook County Circuit Court clerk's office, and apparently he knew the drill. "He didn't need the police looking into his group. If we were looking at Oshana's group, we weren't looking at him."

At the 11th and State station, Jami was advised of his Miranda rights, says Rosen, and then grilled by Wheat, Rosen, and an officer named John McHugh. "The kid was nervous," says Rosen. "At first he was half-truthful, trying to sell us a bill of goods, but as it became apparent we had knowledge of what had happened, he opened up." Before dawn Jami confessed, was formally arrested, and, in the presence of Rosen and an assistant state's attorney, gave an oral statement and signed the transcription.

On the night of the Mikro Kodesh bombing, Jami told them, he was hanging out at a liquor store on Devon, presumably M & Y Liquor and Grocery, when a fellow gang member who went by the nickname "Heavy" drove by and asked if he wanted to make some money. According to the statement, Jami kept watch while Heavy placed a handkerchief in a bottle of gasoline, went down a gangway next to Mikro Kodesh, broke a window, and lit the handkerchief.

"Jami states that he saw "Heavy' again later that day," reads the statement. "At that time, "Heavy' told Jami that the money [$4,000 total] for the fire was coming from "Benji,' who was getting it from an Arab jeweler." The motive, Jami confirmed, was "to try and show that the Khalil brothers were not starting similar fires" as they were already in jail. A few days later, he said, Heavy paid him $300 for his trouble.

Armed with Jami's statement, the police went after 21-year-old Edmond "Heavy" Hanna, rousing him from his bed in his family's apartment in a neatly maintained two-flat in Budlong Woods at eight o'clock that morning. Down at headquarters, Wheat says, the 21-year-old warmed to him. "We talked for a long period of time--about the Bears, the Bulls--and as we went along he got to know me," says the detective. "He said he had a lot of jewelers in his family. One thing led to another, and he confessed."

In his statement, written out in the presence of Wheat, McHugh, and an assistant state's attorney, Edmond said that he went to see the jeweler, whom he had known for a couple years, at "Benji's" suggestion. Edmond contended that the jeweler was "tight" with the Khalil brothers, "who are PLOs," and that he "was wanting him to burn the synagogue in retaliation against the Jews." He said the jeweler agreed to pay him $3,000, and gave him a third up front. Otherwise, Edmond corroborated Jami's account of the crime. He also claimed the jeweler never paid off the remainder of the fee.

The jeweler that Edmond named, Jamal Hamadah, was arrested late the night of November 14 at his store, Emperor Jewelers, on Devon near Western. When questioned, Hamadah at first denied he knew either young man, but he later allowed that he was acquainted with both, says Wheat. The 37-year-old native of Syria also admitted to Wheat that he was in this country illegally, having overstayed the visitor's visa with which he arrived in 1989. But he insisted he knew nothing about the Mikro Kodesh fire.

Nevertheless, on the basis of the young men's statements, testimony from Oshana, and the summary of another Assyrian King's statement, in December a Cook County grand jury indicted Hamadah for solicitation and arson. Edmond and Jami were indicted for arson and possession of incendiary devices.

Jami Derywosh was born in Baghdad in December 1976. The Derywoshes are Assyrians, minority Christians who often experience persecution at the hands of Iraq's ruling Ba'th Party--a situation that worsened during the war with Iran. "The government always feels it's being undermined, and it doesn't tolerate opposition," says Chicagoan Robert DeKelaita, an emigre who edits the Nabu Quarterly, a newsletter about the fate of Assyrians in Iraq. "If you're an Assyrian, you can suddenly be taken from your house, arrested, and tortured for no reason." Most high government positions are off-limits to Assyrians, and they are likely to be denied bank loans and government permits.

When the war broke out in 1980, religious minority groups were corralled into the army and sent to die on the front lines, says Angel Kindo, director of the Assyrian National Council of Illinois. The government cracked down on Assyrians in northern Iraq, blowing up churches it suspected were being used as strongholds for Kurdish rebels. Assyrians raced to leave the country, mostly ending up in crowded, dirty refugee camps in Turkey. The lucky ones, sponsored by international religious groups and relatives who'd already left, made it to the United States. Around the end of 1980, when Jami was four, his family traveled first to New York and then to Chicago.

"There were a lot of us already here, had been since the turn of the century," says Kindo. The adults tended to be well educated; some were professionals, yet to survive they took menial jobs. They settled on the north side, in Albany Park and West Rogers Park, and joined churches affiliated with the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East.

Neither the Hannas nor the Derywoshes wanted to comment for this story; Edmond's uncle, George Murad, a grocery-store owner in northern California, says the family feels terrible about what's become of their son. "Their English is limited, and so it's hard for them to describe their hurt and sorrow," relates Murad. "They feel a bad name is upon them." Kindo says their situation is common among Assyrian families who have arrived in Chicago over the last 15 years.

"The parents come here, and they speak English poorly," Kindo says. "Every extra penny they make they send to relatives back home--everyone has a sister, brother, or cousin in need. They expect to have control over their kids, but they put them in school and there are problems. The little boys get mixed up with gangs, and before they know it they're involved more than they expect. By 14 or 15, when they should be in school, they're out hustling for god knows what.

"The parents don't know what to do. Their kids are staying out past 10:30, doing things that would mean execution in Iraq. The girls are walking around half-naked. The parents feel they have no control, but when they try to exercise it, the kids'll say, "This is not Iraq. You cannot force me to comply.' They are imitating American kids and becoming criminals. This is a disaster facing our community."

Jami's father, Shomayl "Sam" Derywosh, toiled in construction to support his five children, of whom Jami is the oldest. The family lived in and around Albany Park, always in a religious home. "My dad makes everybody pray before they eat," says Jami, whom I interviewed this summer. The family belonged to a local Assyrian church, where Jami sang in the choir.

Jami attended Hibbard and Budlong schools, and says he did well in school early on. "I was double-promoted twice," he says. "I was real smart--still am." He makes a point of mentioning one friend, a Jewish boy he remembers fondly: "Jason was his name. He was one of my best fucking friends. For three years we were very, very close. I knew his dad, his mom, his sister. I forget his last name--it was a Jewish name."

But by the time 13-year-old Jami enrolled at Amundsen high school, his days as an upstanding lad (such as they may have been--school records are not available for corroboration) were definitely behind him. He'd joined the Latin Kings--he says the Assyrian Kings, which Edmond Hanna has told police are "the same thing," did not yet exist--and quickly ran afoul of the administration at Amundsen. "I got into little fights, you know, misdemeanor stuff like mob action," he says; he also says he has a juvenile conviction for car theft during this period. "I'd have a Raiders jacket or the wrong color pants, and things would go from there. It was stupid stuff. I used to go to class, but it was hard going to class--and it got harder and harder. They kicked me out."

In 1989, Sam Derywosh moved the family to Detroit, because, as Jami puts it, "I was getting in a lot of trouble and we needed a nice environment."

There, says Jami, "I started my own organization, sort of like the Latin Kings. There were 40 or 50 of us, but I was the main one." He dropped out of high school there in his junior year. When the Derywoshes returned to Chicago--Jami says his father had trouble finding work in Detroit--the 16-year-old had some mementos: a probation sentence in a juvenile gun-possession case, a tattoo of a suicidal king on his scalp, and the dragon on his neck.

Jami says he first encountered Edmond Hanna in church. "We were in the choir together," he says. "He used to hold candles for the priest." The Hannas, Assyrians like the Derywoshes, had emigrated from Baghdad in 1979. In Chicago the family was granted refugee status because they'd been persecuted in their native country. Edmond's father, Gewargis, who goes by George, worked as a long-distance truck driver, while his wife, Vina, became an assembly-line supervisor at Fel-Pro, a Skokie gasket and sealant maker whose owners, the Lehmans, are among Chicago's leading Jewish progressives. At Saint George Cathedral in east Rogers Park, the Chicago-area see of the Assyrian church, the Hannas were known as devoted parishioners.

Edmond, however, strayed early from the path. His uncle remembers visiting with officials at Peterson school when the boy was in sixth or seventh grade there. "He had a bad record even then," he says. "He didn't know how to read and write, and he was in trouble a lot." At 13, according to his statement, he joined the Latin Kings, and at Mather high school he accumulated what the dean of students described in a presentencing report as a "very thick" file of notes regarding disciplinary action, absences, and gang activity. In his junior year, with a D average, he dropped out.

Edmond found employment--as a bagger at Dominicks and as a dock worker for El Al Israel Airlines at O'Hare--but he also found more trouble. In the four years between quitting school and being arrested for the synagogue firebombing, police records show, he racked up arrests for mob action, gang loitering, battery, and aggravated assault, all of them dismissed in court for one reason or another.

In 1993, at his family's urging, Edmond went to live with his uncle in California. "I trusted him with my business and my money," Murad wrote in a letter to the court. "I loved him like he was my son. I wanted him to stay with me and learn the business but he was homesick and returned to Chicago." Murad now says the young man balked both at working and going to school. "He was bored here from the start," he says, "but he didn't have the money to buy a plane ticket home." After eight months, Edmond managed to finance his return to Chicago.

The streets of West Rogers Park were increasingly controlled by the Assyrian Kings, a gang comprising not only Assyrians but also one black, three or four whites (including a Russian immigrant), and a few Latinos. They dealt powder and rock cocaine and dime bags of heroin, robbed homes and cars, and intimidated local businessmen, according to Officer Schober. They battled mostly with Esho Yousif's Green Briar Boys. "They had all these rejects, these punks," confirms Jami, "and so we used to go over and beat them down."

The Iraqi-born Oshana, the Assyrian Kings chieftain, had a record of his own--he'd served a two-year sentence for aggravated battery in 1984. But as he moved into his late 20s, with a wife, children, and a job as a car parker (says Jami), Oshana generally let others do his bidding. "He was never the guy to get into any trouble himself," says Schober. The officer says Edmond and Jami, close friends despite their age difference, were middle- to upper-level functionaries in the organization. "They weren't in command positions," he says, "but they were up there due to their relatively older age and the time they had in the gang."

Describing his old daily routine, Jami sounds like a bit of a bon vivant. "I'd wake up in the morning and go hang out in the neighborhood," he says. His social life consisted of "chilling, hanging out, girls, parties," movies, and bowling. His associates called him Joker because "I'm pretty happy as a rule," he says. "I like to have fun and make people laugh."

But while he was hanging out, according to police records, Jami accumulated arrests for gang loitering and mob action. He also now admits he dealt drugs, working off a pager and taking in up to $3,000 a night. A police gang-investigations synopsis from around the time of his arrest depicts him as selling crack, heroin, and firearms from around M & Y Liquor. According to the police report, Edmond was a drug-ring leader and also dealt cocaine from around the store.

"I wasn't a threat, as you would say," Jami says. "I was coming up in the world. I bought myself a car, an '86 Buick Park Avenue that I paid $4,500 cash for. I never hurt anybody who was innocent."

Jami, Edmond, and the jeweler Jamal Hamadah pleaded not guilty to the crimes against Mikro Kodesh. Jami spent nearly four months in Cook County Jail before he could raise the $5,000 he needed to get out on bond, by which time the other two were already free.

Investigators had been unable to establish any direct links between Hamadah and the Khalil brothers or Yasir Yasin. The prosecution also lacked evidence linking the jeweler to his alleged hirelings--in court, written confessions can be used to implicate only the confessor. "Our only hope was to get the two kids to testify against Hamadah," says Louis Rosen, "and even then it would be their word against his."

Jami says that Richard Garvin, an attorney also used by Oshana, the Khalils, and Edmond, advised the young men to testify against Hamadah in return for a lighter sentence, and that Edmond, whose testimony was most valued, was willing to do so. But Jami--who also now says he had nothing to do with the firebombing and only confessed under duress--balked. "This man was innocent," he insists. "He had nothing to do with this."

Garvin then counseled Edmond and Jami not to testify against Hamadah, says Jami (Garvin failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview), and in September 1995, prosecutors dropped the charges against the jeweler.

Hamadah's attorney, James Obbish, suggests the intense interest displayed by the Jewish community at the hearings--attended by Rabbi Abramson as well as representatives of the Commission on Human Relations, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Community Relations Council--figured in Hamadah's indictment. "These are always hot cases," he says. "I'm not blaming them, but what I don't like is they were misled to think there was a case against this guy. The state didn't have a case. They only had an out-of-court statement by this individual Hanna, and even if they'd flipped him, they had big problems because they couldn't corroborate Hanna and Derywosh's story. You talk about a rush to judgment."

For Hamadah, who lives with his wife and three children in Skokie, the ordeal has been a Kafkaesque nightmare, says Obbish. "He had many friends who were Jewish who couldn't believe that he'd been implicated in this scheme. He's a businessman with a family who'd never been arrested before. It's amazing that these Assyrian gang members could ruin his reputation."

Hamadah's troubles didn't end after his case was dismissed: in January an immigration judge ordered that the jeweler and his wife leave the country voluntarily or be deported for overstaying their visas. Ralph Schelly, the Hamadahs' immigration attorney, appealed the case, in part on grounds that the Hamadahs might be forced to leave behind their two younger children, who are American citizens; they've been granted a new hearing set for January 30, 1997.

With the charges against Hamadah dropped, the case against the young men inched forward. Meanwhile Edmond worked at F & M Auto Body in Edgewater. Owner Spiro Rempas describes his $9-an-hour employee as "a good worker and a nice guy, always on time, never late, never complained, no problem." Jami stocked the shelves at M & Y, a job he inherited from Edmond; owner Maroun Hanna (no relation to Edmond) says Jami was an able employee and that he never witnessed either of the young men dealing drugs.

Whenever the defendants were to appear before circuit court judge David Erickson, in a small room on the second floor of the criminal courthouse at 26th and California, they would take seats off to one side on the hard spectator benches to wait for their case to be called. Across the aisle sat the observers from the city and Jewish groups, plus members of Mikro Kodesh, including Hobfoll and Farbstein. By and large the Jews restricted their interaction to leveling icy stares at the young men, but one day an elderly man approached them, asking, "Why would anybody do this?"

By that time, Jami was claiming innocence. "Sir, I'm sorry," he told the man. "I didn't do this. I don't know what else to tell you." Meanwhile the Hannas were privately voicing shame at their son's alleged actions and told a priest at their church that they would get on their hands and knees to clean Mikro Kodesh to make amends.

Prosecutor Diane Gordon Cannon, head of the state's attorney's arson unit and a candidate for judge in the upcoming general election, and her associate Michael O'Brien persisted in offering the defendants a deal. "When there were a couple court dates left, they came to us with the offer of a five-year sentence if we would testify against the jeweler," says Jami. "I said, "Nope, I'm not going south on this."' Edmond likewise refused.

On December 6 Erickson held a hearing on a motion by Garvin to suppress the young men's original statements on the grounds that they were coerced. Without them, the prosecution could rely only on slight circumstantial evidence, most notably that Hanna had painted his blue car white after the firebombing, and possibly testimony by Oshana, who had after all already ratted on his associates once.

Jami, dressed in a cream-colored sport shirt, testified that his left arm had been handcuffed to the wall for 45 minutes during questioning. He said he first denied knowing anything about the firebombing of Mikro Kodesh, but that Rosen, Wheat, and other officers had threatened to have him deported and to charge him with a hate crime (which is actually a lesser offense than arson) or a more grievous crime if he didn't confess. In his statement Jami had said he'd been read his rights and had been allowed to call his parents, but on the stand he claimed the opposite. He signed the statement, he said, because "I was very afraid. I didn't know what to do."

Next Edmond, wearing an Adidas sweatshirt, hefted his five-foot-11, 230-pound frame into the witness stand and said he, too, had been threatened with deportation and additional charges if he didn't confess to arson. "I didn't know what the statement was. He [the state's attorney] just told me to sign it," he said softly. "I'd never been through anything like this before. I'm 22 years old."

When their turn came, the assistant state's attorneys who had taken the two men's statements refuted the accusations. As the prosecution's last witness, Rosen calmly seconded their gainsaying, adding that he never handcuffed Jami to the wall.

Garvin argued that prosecutors were only trying to find a couple scapegoats ("They want to solve this in the worst way, and I think they did it in the worst way"), but Erickson ruled that the statements would be allowed. Garvin indicated that Edmond and Jami would plead guilty. But since prosecutors and Garvin stood too far apart on what an acceptable sentence would be, Erickson announced he wouldn't engage in a plea-bargain conference. The judge heard Cannon lay out the state's version of the arson and set sentencing for January 16, and sheriff's deputies herded Edmond and Jami off to Cook County Jail.

"Sir, would you state your name for the court?" Cannon asked an elegant elderly man with a thick European accent.

"Isadore Farbstein."

Farbstein, the vice president of Mikro Kodesh, had signed an impassioned victim-impact statement beseeching Judge Erickson to maximize the penalties for the defendants, and now, at their sentencing hearing, Erickson craned toward the witness box to hear him better.

Farbstein explained that he had come to the U.S. from Berlin in 1951 after spending two years as "a DP out of Poland." When Cannon asked Farbstein to clarify what "DP" stood for, Farbstein replied, "Displaced person." Erickson gave a little nod.

Farbstein said the damage done to the walls, ceiling, and floors of Mikro Kodesh had been repaired, but that the Torahs still smelled of smoke. "It was a terrible thing to be done, something like this," said Farbstein. "We are a community of people who are mostly retired. And some people just out of Russia are there. This is the only place where we can congregate together. And God forbid it would happen that there would be a fire, and we would have no place to go and do our services."

Garvin read for the record letters of apology Jami and Edmond had written to Joseph Tenenbaum, the temple's president. "I am very ashamed and sorry for the action I took in starting the fire at your synagogue," wrote Edmond. "I hope that someday you will forgive me." Jami wrote that his time in jail had led him to contemplate his part in the firebombing: "I know that I was wrong. I know that I caused a lot of pain to your members."

Under the law Erickson could sentence the defendants to anything from probation to 14 years in jail. Ordinarily the maximum penalty for the crimes committed would have been seven years, but because they involved a religious institution, an extended sentence was possible. In the FREE case, Judge Thomas Durkin had given Amyn Kapadia 14 years, characterizing his background as "replete with rebellion against authority," noting that the Pakistan-born Kapadia, who'd adopted the street name "Angel Perez," boasted two prior convictions for burglary and robbery and 13 bond forfeitures and had shouted epithets against Jews in court. Durkin cited his "virulent anti-Semitism" and "hooliganism" as more grievous than what Russian Jews had faced in their homeland. Kapadia's partner, Jason Wiederhold, who had expressed remorse, got five years.

On the grounds that Jami and Edmond were admitted gang members and that they had sought to inflict "serious mental and physical turmoil upon a religious organization," Cannon argued for extended sentences. Garvin asked for "intensive probation," then started to interject that the Khalil brothers had drawn three-year terms (Yasir Yasin, with a prior burglary pending, got seven years). Erickson cut him off, saying, "I don't care what the Khalil brothers got. It has no influence on this set of circumstances."

Garvin told the court that Jami and Edmond's presentencing time in maximum security prison had "forced them to think . . . to come to the crossroads of their life and decide whether or not they want to live destructive, unproductive lives or change and turn in a different direction and become productive and useful citizens." He then asked Erickson to consider sentencing them to intensive probation. Edmond and Jami stood up to reiterate that their actions had been "stupid," and added apologies to their families and the Assyrian community.

After lunch, Erickson delivered his sentence. "This case . . . does in fact emanate a degree of hate that exists not just in America, but all over the world," he began. "It is clear that the motivation, number one, is a hatred of people because of their ancestry. . . . The second motivation is one that I guess maybe in our American culture we are more familiar with. It is cheaper and more tawdry, and that is simply to do it for money. You can be bought. You can buy your assassins. Maybe that is something that is in fact consistent worldwide. I don't know. . . . The anticipation of a profit--that is a factor in aggravation that this court may consider. And this court puts emphasis on that one tends to do his business as a criminal for pay." He gave them both seven years in jail.

After the sentencing, Louis Rosen strolled about, chatting, clearly pleased with the outcome. The veteran detective, who is Jewish and grew up in Rogers Park, had taken the synagogue cases to heart. "I knew some of these synagogues, or knew of them," he says. "I have some relatives with tattoos--not dragons on their necks but numbers on their arms from the concentration camps." It particularly troubled him, he said, that the Mikro Kodesh fire could have spread to the nursing home next door.

On the way back to the lockup Jami, who had been expecting a lighter sentence, passed Rosen. "Rosen was laughing," he says, "and I said, "You're a fucking piece of shit.' And you know what? He laughed at me with an old devil laugh."

Authorities have never been able to establish firm links between the men accused in the various synagogue attacks, though rumors of conspiracy still circulate in the Jewish community. In West Rogers Park and its environs the sentences have brought a cautious level of comfort. "It was important that these people were prosecuted, that the message went out that there will be consequences for acts of anti-Semitism," says KINS's Rabbi Leonard Matanky. FREE has moved to the site of an old stationery store on Devon, and a new Kollel is being built. "The atmosphere in the neighborhood is back to where it was. This is a good place to be."

In Illinois, the number of anti-Semitic incidents fell to 53 in 1995, from a high of 96 the year of the Mikro Kodesh firebombing, and "this year we are probably on a pace with last year," says the ADL's Hirschhaut. The last possible significant one came last November, when police discovered a live hand grenade lying in a paper cup on top of a newspaper honor box on Devon Avenue. No one took responsibility for the live grenade, and since the box was located near both a Jewish bakery and an Assyrian grocery, the intent was unclear.

Donald Hilbring, commander of the police gang-investigations section, says the Assyrian Kings no longer pose much of a threat in the neighborhood. According to an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesperson, Benjamin Oshana is in custody awaiting deportation to Iraq (the proceedings for which were begun in 1986) on grounds of his convictions for burglary and aggravated battery. Last year Dina's, a coffee shop on Devon where the Assyrian Kings congregated, was sold, and two gang members were arrested for a series of rooftop burglaries of businesses. The group's center of operations has moved to Green Briar Park, says officer Joe Schober.

In January representatives of the business community, Jewish leaders, police, and Angel Kindo began meeting monthly to share their concerns and advice. "Like the Assyrians, Jews have gone through the immigrant experience, and successfully," says Rabbi Matanky. "We've tried to suggest ways to provide service to children, like in recreational programs." The Assyrians, says Angel Kindo, "want it known that we don't hate Jews, and where that mentality exists among our people, we intend to stamp it out."

Edmond is at Big Muddy River Correctional Center in downstate Ina, and Jami is at Centralia Correctional Center, where he's spent the first months of his seven-year sentence playing prison sports and taking classes to earn his GED. He has also allied himself with the Latin Kings there. He gripes about the guards, whom he describes as racist and arbitrary. "This is Klan-tralia," he says. "They just took away my cigarettes."

He still claims innocence and still insists he was scared into admitting otherwise. "It doesn't make sense that I would have done this for a measly 300 bucks," he says now. "That was nothing to me. I could make that much making one phone call--boom, boom, and I'd be up. I wore damn outfits worth 300 bucks. Maybe if this had been a $50,000 deal, I would have said fine." He says that the real culprit was a Green Briar Boy whom he refuses to name.

"Benji and Edmond and I--we didn't give a damn about the Jewish people. It's like the whole world is fighting with them, and I don't know why. I'm not into racism or politics. Assyrians have no feud with the Jewish people like the Palestinians do. A Jew could be sitting here, and I wouldn't hate him, though I wouldn't love him either. As a matter of fact, I feel sorry for the Jewish people. I was watching Schindler's List the other day, about all the bad done to the Jews. They did nothing to deserve that."

He believes, however, that the heft of his sentence is due in part to leverage Jews exercised over the judge. "The Jewish people are powerful," insists Derywosh, "and their coming to court all the time frightened Erickson, who is Jewish. He had his mind made up in advance. He said he wouldn't make us sacrificial lambs, but he did." (Erickson is actually a Roman Catholic.)

Jami is scheduled to be released in January 1999, after which he says he hopes to work in construction and marry his girlfriend. Due to the severity of their crimes the Justice Department can move to deport both him and Edmond after their release, and while there is no word on what federal officials may do, Jewish activists say they'll be paying attention. "They will not be free men in this country," promises the ADL's Hirschhaut, "ever."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kathy Richland.

Add a comment