Congregation Netivot Shalom at 1316 University Ave. Photo: Netivot Shalom/Facebook

Berkeley police have arrested a 39-year-old woman on suspicion of setting a fire in a trash can behind Congregation Netivot Shalom synagogue at 1316 University Ave. (at Acton Street).

The arrest of Shameka Adams, address unknown, on Aug. 7 came a little more than a week after someone set fire to some trash cans in the rear parking lot of The Way Christian Center, 1305 University Ave. The two religious institutions are located on the same block and across the street from one another.

Berkeley police do not know if there is any connection between the two arsons, said Officer Byron White, the department spokesperson. “We don’t know if it’s related but they are very close together,” he said.

Burned trash can at Netivot Shalom. Photo: Berkeley Police Department

Rabbi Chai Levy, who heads the congregation, said her understanding is that the woman who was arrested in connection with the fire may have a mental illness. The woman has been seen around the synagogue and has even gotten food from its kitchens.

“We don’t believe the fire at our synagogue was a hate crime,” said Levy.

The Berkeley Fire Department got a call at 8:51 p.m. on Aug. 6. about a fire at the synagogue. When firefighters arrived, they learned that someone had set fire to a plastic trash bin behind the synagogue and then had run away. Bystanders called the fire department and worked to extinguish the flames.

Police detectives got a good description of the person suspected of setting the fire and also were able to review video surveillance recordings. They started to look for the person suspected of setting the fire the following day and found her, wearing the same clothes as in the video, in Ohlone Park, said White.

Adams was arrested on suspicion of arson and providing false identification to the police. She is being held on $55,000 bail.

There have been 10 trash can fires in Berkeley in 2020, according to Assistant Chief Keith May, a spokesman for the Berkeley Fire Department. There have been an additional 93 fires involving burning leaves and burning “rubbish” on the side of a road, he said.

No evidence yet that church arson was hate-motivated

Berkeley police still do not know if the fire set outside The Way Christian Church on July 29 was a hate crime, said White. No writing about the arson or other evidence to suggest it was hate-motivated has been discovered, he said.

“We haven’t any information to say it’s an actual hate crime,” said White.

That fire involved two trash cans. It also scorched the side of the church.

Police released a video of a person walking near The Way around the time of the fire. But the quality of the video is poor and does not give a clear indication of the person’s sex, age or race, said White.

The arson at The Way came a day after the church hung a “Black Lives Matter,” banner across its facade. Since the fire happened soon after, Pastor Michael McBride, who leads the church, said he thought the two events were connected and he called it an act of terror. McBride castigated elected officials, the Berkeley city manager and the police chief for not quickly calling him on the phone to offer support. He said their “timid response” was similar to the indifference politicians have shown over the decades to the long racist history of burning churches.

The fire at The Way brought around 100 people to the church the day after to show their support for McBride and his congregants. McBride said they would not be intimidated.

Levy said many of the members of Congregation Netivot Shalom, as well as the synagogue, showed support with their neighbors at The Way by attending the gathering, signing a card and donating to The Way’s GoFundMe campaign to repair damage to the church and help it buy security cameras. Donations now exceed $43,000.

Update, 6:30 p.m.: This article was updated to add that members of Netivot Shalom supported The Way at its gathering and by writing a card.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...