For the Chabad communities of Arlington and Needham, three years has been a long time to wait for justice.
But it’s finally come. And there is enormous relief and gratitude following the news in February that a former Quincy man has been arrested in Sweden and indicted for allegedly obstructing an investigation into three antisemitic arson incidents at Chabad houses in those towns and at a fourth at an elder center in Chelsea.
“There was a sense of closure to a story that was pretty traumatic to my family and the community, and a lot of joy at the announcement,” said Rabbi Avi Bukiet of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life Arlington-Belmont. His home, which was targeted twice in one week, is also the location of the Chabad center where his family hosts services and classes.
“For the last three years, we were collectively worried,” the rabbi said.
According to the federal indictment, four fires were set at Jewish-related institutions in the Boston area in May of 2019. Two were at the Arlington Chabad Center on May 11 and May 16, another at the Chabad Jewish Center of Needham on May 16, and a fourth, on May 26, at an unidentified Jewish affiliated business in Chelsea.
The report said the Chelsea fire was set next to the building “near an exit door.” It was quickly extinguished by employees. A container of acetone – a flammable liquid – was found nearby.
On Feb. 16, the office of United States Attorney Rachael S. Rollins confirmed Alexander Giannakakis, 35, had been arrested in Stockholm and indicted in Boston in connection with the case; the U.S. plans to seek his extradition. His younger brother, unnamed in the court papers, was identified as the suspect around February 2020 after his fingerprints were recovered on the accelerant can at the Chelsea fire.
According to the indictment, the man identified as the suspect had been hospitalized and remained in a coma since November 2019. He later died. Rabbi Bukiet said he was told by law enforcement that his death followed a suicide attempt, and that he fell into a coma from the injuries. The Jewish Journal confirmed this information with law enforcement.
The fires came around the same time that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force was – independently of the fires – investigating whether a group of people in and around Massachusetts was planning criminal activity in support of their “racially-motivated, violent extremist ideology,” the indictment states. One of the people being investigated was Giannakakis’s younger brother.
About six months after the fires, the FBI and a State Police detective interviewed Giannakakis’s mother, who lived in Quincy. She confirmed her younger son had antisemitic views and provided a handwritten document purporting to be the cover page to a charter for a group the FBI believed was inclined to use violence against Jews.
She later told investigators that Alexander Giannakakis had taken his younger brother’s electronic devices, mail, and writings to Sweden, where he worked as a security contractor at the US Embassy. In March 2020, Giannakakis returned to the U.S. – with the devices and documents – ostensibly to handle his brother’s affairs, at which point federal agents executed a search warrant of his mother’s house.
In the suspect’s bedroom they found antisemitic material, including swastikas and a paraphrased quote from the Nazi slogan of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer” (one country, one people, one leader).
According to the indictment, other writings included statements such as “A world without Jews is a world without scum” and “We must kill, we must kill all Jews. That is simply essential.”
FBI agents interviewed Alexander Giannakakis who, according to the indictment, had concealed from them that he had access to a storage unit that contained other antisemitic material belonging to his brother. Shortly afterward, Giannakakis removed those items and returned to Sweden, where he was arrested.
Charges include making false statements in a matter involving domestic terrorism; concealing and covering up evidence; and tampering with documents.
Rabbi Bukiet said the FBI had assured him that an investigation was ongoing but the arrest “was news to me. They didn’t say anything until they came out with the indictment. I was completely surprised and relieved.”
He expressed gratitude for the diligence of law enforcement officers. The congregation has put extra security measures in place, he said, “so the community would feel safe. But when the news came, there was a collective sigh of relief.
We had been extremely worried about the person who was out there who set the fire.”
His feelings were echoed by other Chabad rabbis, including Rabbi Mendy Krinsky of the Chabad Jewish Center of Needham, which also had been targeted. “We are genuinely grateful and thankful for all the diligent work that law enforcement did to come to this conclusion,” he said.
Rabbis on the North Shore said the impact of the arson incidents reached well beyond the affected communities.
“Without question,” said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, director of Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott. “We joined not only Chabad communities but Jewish communities around the globe in taking a closer look at our security systems and upgrading and improving in every and all ways. The sense out there is that you can’t do this and get away with it. It catches up to you, and justice and law will prevail over hatred and anarchy. Procedures are in place and are working and are effective.”
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad Lubavitch of Peabody said the incidents underscore the need for caution but also for strength and resolve.
“Hate, sadly, will always be there, until G-d’s revelation is obvious,” he said. “It will be part of our reality. They don’t care that you have a yarmulke on, they just care that you are Jewish. But the biggest win we can give them is: I will appear to be less Jewish, attend shul less, practice less Yiddishkeit. Truly, our job is not to be pulled into the mess and the noise.”
He added: “Without disclosing internal protocols, you can know that if you come to Chabad you are safe. And I’m not referring to G-d protecting you. And you can quote me on this.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. JTA contributed to this article.