Man, 79, guns down fellow worshiper outside West Boca synagogue
October 5, 2005, 6:40 PM EDT
By Chrystian Tejedor & Tal Abbady
PREVIOUS COVERAGE FOLLOWS: Solemn Rosh Hashana services in a storefront synagogue west of Boca Raton to mark the Jewish new year came to a shocking halt Tuesday afternoon when two feuding congregants walked outside and one shot the other twice in the chest at point-blank range.
About 200 worshipers in the Chabad Weltman Synagogue heard gunfire just after the reading of a traditional prayer that discusses God's judgment of who will live and who will die.
"This wasn't how we thought we would be celebrating the new year," said Mordechai Sufrin, 70.
Jonathan Samuels, 44, was felled just outside the doorway of the synagogue, in the Boca Hamptons Plaza in the 9000 block of Kimberly Boulevard. Samuels was listed in critical condition Tuesday night at Delray Medical Center.
The alleged shooter, Marc Benayer, 79, was arrested quickly at the scene by a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy who was posted at a synagogue across the street as part of beefed-up security for the start of the holiest period in the Jewish year.
Rosh Hashana initiates a 10-day period of celebration and personal reflection that culminates Oct. 13 in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Benayer, a resident of Century Village in West Boca, was facing charges of attempted murder and aggravated battery, deputies said.
Sheriff's officials said the troubles between Benayer and Samuels had to do with a 52-year-old woman who once lived with Benayer and who worked in Samuels' electronics business, according to sheriff's spokesman Paul Miller.
After their relationship ended in November, the woman unsuccessfully sought a restraining order against Benayer, Miller said. Samuels and other employees tried to help her obtain the court order, Miller added.
The shooting Tuesday happened after the woman and her current boyfriend left the synagogue because they felt uncomfortable around Benayer, Miller said.
Benayer then saw Samuels and walked out of the synagogue with him.
As the men argued, Benayer reportedly produced a silver handgun and opened fire.
Samuels was hit twice in the chest, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Teri Barbera. One bullet flew through a tall glass window into a church playroom, but no one was hurt.
Witnesses said Benayer continued shooting until his gun was empty. It clicked again and again.
"I'm possessed. I'm possessed. I'm possessed," were the only words to come from Benayer, said Joy Minnis, who works at Primary Care Associates, a doctor's office behind the synagogue. "Then he was calm. He just stood there."
Some of the congregants heard the gunshots and dropped to the floor. Others continued singing a poem about faith.
"Everybody thought that it was a terrorist attack," Leslie Friedman said. "That's the first thing that enters your mind."
Former neighbors described Benayer as an Israeli and retired European banker who was a competitive bridge player and a religious man, active in his congregation. He also was known for having a hot temper.
"He didn't have many friends, or any friends," said Mildred Borgersen, who was Benayer's neighbor in Boca Chase until he moved about 18 months ago. "He wasn't very popular here."
Added former next-door neighbor Mark Scheck: "He was always very quiet. He was never that pleasant, but I had no troubles with him."
The shooting stunned the congregation, a part of the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox movement, and provoked a similar reaction throughout the Jewish community.
"This points up the fact that security needs to be taken very seriously," said William Gralnick, southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
Indeed, given the heightened risk of terrorism, security at area temples was a priority at the start of the Jewish holidays. Religious leaders from several synagogues met weeks ago with sheriff's officials to plan for traffic and crowd control.
The Chabad Weltman Synagogue, however, did not take part in those sessions and did not request any special attention from deputies, according to Maj. Bob Ferrell.
"This may have been a crime of passion and almost impossible to stop," Gralnick said. "Yet, if they had hired security, who's to say a trained eye might not have seen a bulge, a glint, a look on somebody's face?"
The shooting started as rabbis were in the middle of the Mussaf service, which only takes place on the Sabbath and during the High Holy Days, said Rabbi Moshe Rabin of Bais Chaya Preparatory Academy in Pompano Beach, who was assisting with afternoon services at Chabad Weltman.
Samuels, who attended the service with his family, ran back into the synagogue and collapsed next to Friedman and near 18-year-old Tzvi Bitterman of West Boca Raton.
While Bitterman ran across the shopping center to call police, another congregant ran toward Benayer and tackled him after the gun was empty.
Witnesses said Benayer waited passively until a deputy arrived to arrest him.
As the commotion subsided, many in the congregation gathered in the parking lot, where a rabbi was able to blow the shofar, a ram's horn, signifying the end of the service, Rabin said.
Worshipper Stuart Kowal of Boca Raton said he walked out of the prayer hall about 1:30 p.m. in search of his children, who he suspected were in the synagogue's playground, when he heard the crackle of gunfire.
"I saw a stampede and heard people screaming, `Someone's got a gun!'" he said.
Kowal said he then saw Samuels, bloodied and writhing on the floor of the prayer hall. At least two physicians in the congregation attended to Samuels, Kowal said, before paramedics showed up.
Mordechai and Freyda Sufrin, in-laws of Rabbi Zalman Bukiet, walked in the drizzle away from the synagogue moments after the shooting. Both seemed stunned by the violence that shattered a meditative hour of prayer.
The Sufrins, visiting from London, said they were standing at the front of the prayer hall when the shots rang out. "We heard the panic," Mordechai Sufrin said. "It has no bearing on the fact that this is a wonderful community."
Five hours after the shooting, the excitement at Chabad Weltman, founded in 1990, seemed over. Playing cards littered the floor of a front room, and bowls with food were still on top of two long, wooden tables.
Congregants trickled back in for another round of Rosh Hashana services. One service was conducted before and another after sunset, said Rubin, who brought the shofar for the evening services.
Staff Writer Mike Clary contributed to this report.
Chrystian Tejedor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6645.