‘My whole bed was on fire’

‘My whole bed was on fire’

Pessy Schuman talks of life during, before, and after Rutherford synagogue bombing

Pessy Schuman
Pessy Schuman

Pessy Schuman woke up to a room in flames.

“My whole bed was on fire,” she said last week. “There were walls of fire all across the carpets, all across the furniture.”

It was just before dawn on January 11, 2012, and her bedroom window, on the upper floor of Congregation Beth El of Rutherford, had been shattered by Molotov cocktails thrown by Anthony Graziano of Lodi, then 19.

Mr. Graziano is scheduled to be sentenced for the attack this Friday, July 28. So is his conspirator, the bombing mastermind, Aakash Dalal, who also was 19 in 2012. They face up to life in prison for terrorism — the prosecutors asked for 45 years — and are the first to have been convicted under New Jersey’s post-9/11 terrorism statutes.

Graziano was convicted of terrorism — but acquitted of attempted murder. The jury evidently preferred to convict him for his actions — committing a dangerous crime “to terrorize five or more persons” in the words of the statute  — rather than to speculate on his motivations. Dalal was not prosecuted for attempted murder in his trial. But the question of whether the pair wanted to kill the family or only to burn down the building seemed obvious to Ms. Schuman that January night, and her feeling was borne out when the police investigated and the full story emerged.

It has been five and a half years since that night and Ms. Schuman still has flashbacks and nightmares. “The post-traumatic stress has presented me with pain,” she said. “Massive proportions of pain and challenges. The healing process has brought me to a place in life I hadn’t seen myself going to.”

That included the end of a 17-year-career as a rebbetzin, a divorce, and a new career as a licensed medical massage therapist. She has remarried and lives in Teaneck with her children.

Rabbi Schuman has a new congregation on Long Island and is engaged to be married.

Looking back on that night, Ms. Schuman remembers the panic and the fear, and she can see how events could have taken a tragic turn. The shul had modernized some of the windows in the building. But those through which the bombs entered were still the old, heavy ones. In putting together the firebomb, Graziano “had used extra thick oil so it would stick onto the skin,” she said. Instead, the oil didn’t soak into the bedspread, which was used to extinguished the flames by folding it onto itself.

“I said, ‘Get out, we have to get out!’ My ex-husband didn’t want the shul to burn down. He went to get a fire extinguisher. I went to get the kids.”

The Schumans’ five children then ranged between 7 and 15. Now the oldest is going to be a junior at Stern College and the youngest will be in seventh grade at Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School in Paramus.

“I went in to their bedrooms determined to sound calm and said, ‘we have to get out quickly, there’s a fire, let’s go.’”

Things didn’t stay calm. One daughter, half asleep, thought that a friend who had spent the night the previous Shabbat was still there — and needed to be saved from the fire too. “She started screaming, ‘We have to get my friend!’ She wanted to go back in,” Ms. Schuman said.

“Instinctively I knew I would have to keep track of who left and who didn’t, so I didn’t take my children downstairs until all of us gathered. I took my children downstairs. I couldn’t take them outside. I was thinking that if they’re throwing bombs in, they will be waiting outside to kill us.

“I was on the phone with the police screaming.

Congregation Beth El in Rutherford.
Congregation Beth El in Rutherford.

“The firemen came and finished putting out the fire. Having gone the day before to the CSI Experience at Times Square” — a game that allows players to pretend to solve a crime — “I was scared to destroy the evidence and was screaming to the firemen and policemen, ‘You’re trampling on the evidence!’”

In fact, the professionals knew what they were doing. They retrieved the crucial evidence — the homemade firebombs made from soda bottles and ingredients bought at Walmart. Before long, investigators were able to find a Walmart customer who had bought the ingredients a few days before the fire and they captured his image from video footage of the transaction. He was identified as Anthony Graziano. Ms. Schuman saw some of the evidence during one of her meetings with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.

“I saw the bottles, and the bandana that was in the bottle, the half that was used,” she said. “The other half was found as evidence in his house.”

That January night was not the first time Ms. Schuman had seen anti-Semitic violence directed toward her house. The first time was when she was a child in Argentina, before her family fled anti-Semitism there in the 1980s.

“There was so much of a Nazi undercurrent in Argentina,” she said.

Ms. Schuman’s great grandparents arrived in Argentina in 1901, Jews fleeing Poland and Russia in a time of mounting pogroms. They became cattle farmers — part of a project of European Jewish philanthropists, led by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, to help destitute and persecuted Eastern European Jews survive in South America. The Jewish Colonization Association provided land and an interest-free mortgage to the Jewish settlers. During the project’s heyday in 1930, 20,000 Jewish colonists farmed 2,000 square miles of land.

Her mother grew up on the farm. Ms. Schuman visited it as a child. “The kitchen was very primitive,” she said. “My grandfather didn’t have running water. They had a well.”

There’s a horrible family story that involves the well.

“My grandmother had a much younger sister, 20 years younger,” Ms. Schuman said. “One day my grandmother was supposed to be watching her. She was playing with some matches — I think they were in the barn — she caught fire. By the time my grandmother made it to the well, it was too late.”

Ms. Schuman’s father came from a family of musicians. He was said to be a musical prodigy. He was the first violinist for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra. He was a proud Jew — and became more and more determined to show it as he and his wife became more religious, under the influence of Satmar chasidim.

It was not a good time or place to walk the streets in Jewish garb.

“I remember walking in the street and someone putting a cigarette out on his arm,” she said. “I remember people saying ‘We should have turned you all into soap.’” Yet he wasn’t a Jew only in the streets; he was Jewish on his job as well.

“He was an exhibitionist,” Ms. Schuman said. “He would wear his tzitzit and his kipah in the orchestra, when they’re wearing a full tuxedo. My father was not making any more friends as he was constantly shoving into their faces that he was Jewish.

“They would do horrible things to him. During his solo, his sheet music would be gone. Or they let a mouse out during his solo. They never could rattle him during the performances, but it was just a constant feeling of being persecuted. He was getting threats from his co-workers. They were envious of his position. ‘He’s Jewish, he doesn’t deserve it.’ One Yom Kippur — he had by then started keeping Shabbat — he didn’t go in to play at the matinee. When he went to the next show, his co-workers attacked him. They stomped on his head, they beat him up so badly that he had a bald spot forever and ever. The police were just standing there, doing nothing.”

Ms. Schuman has “a vague memory” from when she was 8 years old. “We were coming upstairs to our floor in the apartment building,” she said. “My father says, ‘Get the kids back in the elevator.’ Our front door had been burst open, kind of like blown up. The lock had been blown up. His co-workers had left a note: ‘Get out!’”

The family did.

They came to America and settled in a Satmar community in upstate New York.

“The Satmar told my father that when he came to America he could play in the theater and be shomer Shabbat,” she said. “He came to America and they put him to work in a diamond factory. He wanted to play violin. He started working a little with the Neginah Orchestra” — which played Jewish weddings — “but it wasn’t classical.”

It was not an auspicious beginning.

Young Pessy’s introduction to Satmar was not any better.

“I have horrible memories of the torture of not being frum enough,” she said. “I didn’t even know the language. I remember one day a group of girls surrounded me. ‘Do you know what Bashefer is?’ they asked. That’s Yiddish for the creator. It’s basically God. I knew what Hashem was. I said ‘No, I don’t.’ They taunted me, ‘You’re a goy, you’re a goy.’”

Before long the family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and were part of the Satmar community there. Pessy’s father found work caring for old people. “We were immigrants,” she said. “We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. My mom babysat at night.” Some of his father’s elderly charges lived with them in the crowded apartment.

In Argentina, “I was never allowed to tell anyone I was Jewish when we went anywhere.”

In high school, in the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, “I asked how do we know God created the world? The teacher said, ‘Behave yourself!’ By the time I was in 12th grade I wanted to go to college and study medicine. My principal convinced me that I would be selling my soul to the devil.”

Instead she went to seminary, in Toronto and in Israel. She taught for a year in the Bais Yaakov in Denver. She was briefly in an arranged engagement to a fellow Argentinian. “He was a member of the Satmar mafia,” she said. “He had all these parking tickets in his car. I would say, ‘Don’t double park. We’ll get a ticket,’ and he would say, ‘Don’t worry. I have it taken care of.’” That was one of many red flags. She ended the engagement. Years later “he landed in jail, convicted for identity theft and white collar crimes.”

She was introduced to Nosson Schuman. “I wanted someone who was also a baal teshuva,” she said. “I knew they would really mean it, not like the fake people I had found in Brooklyn.”

He wanted to be a rabbi “out-of-town” — that is, out in non-Brooklyn, less-Jewish America.

After a little more than a handful of non-hand-holding Orthodox dates and a five week engagement, they married.

They did go out of town. Their first pulpit — where she became a rebbetzin — was in Santa Barbara, California. The family later would move to Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Youngstown, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana — small cities where Rabbi Schuman might be the only Orthodox rabbi — before making their way to Rutherford. The small congregation there had only 20 families — but was just a mile away from Passaic and its intense Orthodox community.

“I don’t regret it for a minute,” Ms. Schuman said of her years as a rebbetzin, though she had tired of the role by the end. “There are incredible people out there.”

There were the women she studied with for conversion who became her friends. “The conversion process is so painful and difficult,” she said. “My heart just breaks when I see them suffering so much for something so altruistic.”

In contrast to growing up, when she felt not Orthodox enough, she was now an Orthodox leader. She was warmly received and respected by non-Jews as well as  her congregants

“We were known as the religious people,” she said. “The police would know us, the mayors, we were respected members of the community.”

Her vision of the world started broadening. “There’s a whole world out there of people who are spiritual, and they don’t insist on walking on Shabbat,” she said. “I remember being indoctrinated growing up that goyim are bad, and we have to stay away from them. The first time I ever saw God’s love for me during prayer was when a non-Jewish friend prayed for me to feel it.”

One time a congregant who was a convert and had been raised a Christian told her, “Let God’s love flow through you.”

The possibility of seeing God in this way was fascinating.

She began to explore a more private, a more personal Judaism. When she moved to Rutherford in 2008, she stepped back from the rebbetzin role she had embraced in other towns.  “I needed to discover who I am,” she said, “other than as an extension of someone else’s identity and career.” She stopped teaching at the synagogue. She got a job at Trader Joe’s and within a year, she became a manager.

And then came the night of fire.

“We got cards and letters from Conservative and Reform synagogues, and hundreds of letters from churches around the country, from their Sunday schools,” Ms. Schuman said. “We got support from different pastors in town.”

The leaders of the Jewish community in Passaic — to which she had felt that belonged —were less comforting, she said. “There was one rabbi from Passaic who called us. I don’t remember any of them visiting us. There was no one at the trial or the verdict.”

After the fire, the family recovered in different ways, leading them toward different paths and ending the marriage. She earned a degree at the Institute for Therapeutic Massage. Five years later, together with her husband, David Strait, Pessy and her children now live in Teaneck and are members of Congregation Netivot Shalom.

“David’s insights and gentle approach to Torah have brought me comfort,” she said.

But most importantly: “I feel God is inside me.”

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