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Police investigating dumpster fire at Edmonton Jewish school

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The Talmud Torah School in Edmonton. GOOGLE STREET VIEW PHOTO

Two fires appear to have been deliberately set outside of a Jewish school in Edmonton on Saturday, July 15 and Sunday, July 16.

A neighbour called Edmonton Fire Rescue just after 9 p.m. to report a fire in a recycling bin beside the Talmud Torah School.

Fire crews were able to tame the flames within minutes, though a journalist on the scene reported that “the fire evidently burned hot enough to peel the paint from the sides of the bin, leaving burnt debris at the bottom and melted rubber clinging to the sides.”

Police were called back to the school around 2 p.m. the next day, after a security guard found the remains of a burnt garbage bag next to a door on the west side of the building, along with some damage to the stone facade.

Investigators suspect the fires may have been intentionally set and the Edmonton police have taken over the investigation. Police are reviewing footage from the school security cameras.

Gerald Sorokin, executive director with the Talmud Torah Society, who was on the scene on July 15 and 16, thinks it is unlikely the two fires were set by different people.

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“The story was not publicized until Monday, so that would be a really strange coincidence. Over the years, there have been incidents of vandalism at the school and sometimes graffiti that was explicitly anti-Semitic in nature,” Sorokin said.

“It is always hard to know if it’s mischief or real anti-Semitism. The Orthodox synagogue down the street had their Israeli flag stolen and the next day, their Canadian flag was stolen, too. These incidents are not always easy to interpret.”

A recent report by Statistics Canada suggested that hate crimes in this country are on the rise, driven in part by an increase in crimes against the Muslim community, which increased 253 per cent between 2012 and 2015.

Alberta saw a steeper increase in hate crimes over any other province in Canada, with 193 incidents reported to police in 2015 alone, a 39 per cent increase over the 139 reported in 2014.

There were 178 hate-motivated crimes targeting Jews specifically in Canada in 2015, making up a significant proportion of hate crimes in this country.

“The mosque in our neighbourhood has also suffered anti-Islamic graffiti,” said Sorokin. “We are seeing it against a number of different minority communities. That’s a concern for us, as well as for them.”

‘It is always hard to know if it’s mischief or real anti-Semitism’

Talmud Torah was first established in 1912 and became part of the Edmonton Public School District in the 1970s. It focuses on providing a bilingual Hebrew education and a Jewish studies program.

Although school is out for the summer, a daycare is running out of the school and Edmonton Chabad is holding a summer camp in the building.

Parents have come forward with concerns, said Sorokin, but so far, there has not been any serious concerns about parents sending their children there.

“I am glad they are trusting the police and not panicking, but they are concerned – as they should be. The second fire was right against the building. If it had happened to have cans of paint or other dangerous water, there could have been an explosion instead of a fire and something really dangerous. It could easily be much more damaging if the contents had been different,” he said.

“It is a big step from defacing a building towards setting a fire because with fire, there is the possibility of significant property damage or personal injury. Whether this was a prank or a political stunt, the use of fire as the means of expression is really dangerous.”