Man arrested after Fort Lauderdale Chabad center is damaged in apparent arson attack


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – A Chabad house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was damaged in a suspected arson attack over the weekend, and local authorities have arrested a 50-year-old man they believe to be responsible.

The rabbi of the Las Olas Chabad Jewish Community Center told local news that he was alerted to the fire Saturday morning, and that security camera footage showed a man lighting the rabbi’s van on fire after first attempting to light the building itself on fire. 

No one was injured, Rabbi Chaim Slavaticki said, but the kosher kitchen was destroyed and there was smoke damage to the Torah and other elements of the building.

The fire occurred hours before scheduled Shabbat morning services, which the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation wound up holding outside, Slavaticki said. 

The suspect, 50-year-old Scott Hannaford, had run-ins with the rabbi and his wife in the past, according to Slavaticki, who said Hannaford has screamed at his family and blocked their vehicle’s path near the synagogue.

Police charged Hannaford with two counts of arson, criminal mischief and possession of cocaine but said they would not charge him with a hate crime because they considered the arson to be an isolated incident and said that Hannaford appeared to be suffering from mental illness.

Slavaticki and other Chabad congregants, however, believe the alleged actions merit a hate crime charge. “It was a clearly targeted attack on our facility and our Community,” the center said in a statement on its Facebook page. Dean Myerlow, who is involved with the Chabad, told local news, “The individual that perpetrated this crime needs to have the book thrown at him. This is not an accident. Our congregation has nowhere to worship, so this is a barbaric act.”

“We are still in shock that such a thing could happen at a community center that is a light and helps so many different people from so many different walks of life,” Slavatacki told local news outlets. But he also said he had hope because a prayer book sitting inside his van was still intact after the fire: “This is a hug from God, and God is telling us to all stand together.”

As particularly visible and often accessible spaces of Jewish worship, Chabad houses have been targets of vandalism in the past. Last year a man was arrested after attempting to break in to a different Chabad house in Florida. In general, reports of antisemitic incidents including attacks on synagogues have gone drastically up since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

The Las Olas Chabad house launched an online fundraiser in an effort to raise $1 million to repair the damage. It has raised over $74,000 as of press time.