Incendiary devices, possibly firecrackers, tossed at homes of New City rabbis

NEW CITY, New York (WABC) -- Clarkstown police are investigating after several incendiary devices went off outside the homes of two rabbis in Rockland County.

The incidents happened on Tarry Hill Drive and Phillips Hill Road in New City, near a Jewish religious center, around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday and led to small fires.

Nachama Kotlarsky told responding officers that she heard a loud boom and then observed four white males, possibly teenagers, running west outside her home. One of them then threw a firework toward the front of her house, which exploded next to a tree and caused the tree to catch fire.

"I was really scared," she said. "I was shaking. My heart was pounding."

The suspects fled west on Phillips Hill Road, and New City firefighters responded and extinguished the blaze.

While conducting the investigation, police were approached by another resident of the home who told them of a similar incident at a neighboring property. The resident had been at a gathering Rabbi Simcha Morganstern's house on Phillips Hill Road when attendees heard a loud boom from the driveway area. Further inspection revealed that a firework had been thrown in between three cars, which did not sustain any damage.

"It certainly was intentional, and we certainly know that the effects of it create tension and fear and paranoia in the neighborhood," he said.

No suspects were spotted, and a fragment and partial label from the firework were recovered from the scene and secured as evidence for further processing.

The incidents are being looked at as possible bias crimes, but among members of Chabad of Rockland, there is little doubt.

"Kids throwing fireworks at two rabbis' houses within seconds of each other?" Chany Kotlarsky said. "And they threw it at this house -- I'm happy not at someone else's house -- to me, that seems targeted."

Police say they have not yet classified the nature of the crime.

"We have not ruled out the possibility, but we do not have enough information at this juncture to declare this to be a hate crime or motivated particularly because the religious affiliation of the targets," Clarkstown police Sergeant Glenn Cummings said.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day called for an aggressive investigation.

"There is no place for hate in our community," he said. "We condemn this apparent hate crime in the strongest terms possible. I expect an aggressive investigation by the Clarkstown Police Department to determine if this is a hate crime."

Commissioner of Human Rights Penny Jennings said she will convene a meeting of the county's Interfaith Council, which was formed to foster greater understanding between the diverse groups that call Rockland home.

"I assured him that the Human Rights Commission will certainly take a public stand against any and all acts of hate," Jennings said. "It will not be silently condoned. We will work to deepen community relationships based on trust, tolerance and shared goals."

The Anti-Defamation League also condemned the incidents.

"We are outraged by this shocking incident in what appears to be the alleged targeting of two prominent rabbis, and we join with local leadership, including the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, in strongly condemning this brazen act of violence," New York Regional Director Evan Bernstein said. "We are maintaining close contact with local law enforcement and are urging them to vigorously investigate and prosecute those responsible for this alleged anti-Semitic attack.

The ADL's annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, which tracks both criminal and non-criminal acts of anti-Semitism, documented 14 incidents in Rockland and Westchester counties and upstate New York in 2015.

"While we are relieved that nobody was injured, such a troubling incident like this can effectively intimidate the broader Jewish community, leaving them feeling vulnerable and at risk," Bernstein said. "People of any religion, race or ethnicity must feel safe in their own neighborhoods. We are pleased to see statements by local elected officials denouncing the incident and we encourage the community to come together to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry."

Anyone with information is urged to contact the Clarkstown Police Department Detective Bureau at 845-639-5840.
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