As news of a self-proclaimed white supremacist’s plan to bomb a synagogue swept the nation Monday, a tight-knit Pueblo congregation grappled with the feeling that more security was needed in its house of worship.
Richard Holzer was arrested after he told undercover FBI agents — believing they were fellow supremacists — that he planned to blow up Temple Emanuel, the second-oldest synagogue in Colorado. Holzer, 27, also intended to poison its congregation with arsenic, according to a recently unsealed court affidavit.
Holzer, who claims he is a skinhead and a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, said he was plotting to bomb the synagogue overnight to avoid the police, but if someone was there, he “would not care because they would be Jews,” read the affidavit.
Though thwarted by the FBI, the anti-Semitic threat hit close to home for the 30-family congregation in Pueblo.
Though security measures are in place at the synagogue — constructed in 1900 — the threat suggested more precautions could be taken, said Michael Atlas-Acuña, president of the synagogue’s board of directors. The synagogue plans security cameras and other measures.
“We are going to be vigilant. We are not going to be victims. We are going to protect ourselves,” Atlas-Acuña said.
Rather than fueling anger, he said Holzer’s arrest made him feel thankful for the proactive efforts of the FBI and Pueblo Police Department.
“This was a positive thing because it didn’t happen,” he said. “I’m trying to see this as a glass half-full.”
But still, it’s concerning, he said.
The news comes slightly more than a year after one of the nation’s most deadly attack on Jews, when a gunman opened fire at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were killed and six wounded.
Atlas-Acuña said many of the members of the Pueblo congregation are armed when they come to pray. And for some, that decision was prompted by the Pittsburgh shooting. Posted outside the synagogue reads a sign that reads: “This is not a gun-free zone.”
Holzer’s threat bolsters data collected from the Anti-Defamation League showing a surge in anti-Semitism nationwide. Since the Oct. 27, 2018, attack in Pittsburgh, at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested on suspicion of plotting attacks or making threats against the Jewish community, according to a 2018 ADL report.
Last year, the Jewish community received “near-historic levels” of anti-Semitic threats — the third-highest total since the organization began tracking such incidents in 1979, the ADL said.
The organization recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic events — largely consisting of vandalism and harassment — in 46 states and the District of Columbia, 344 of which were in K-12 schools. Thirty-nine were recorded in Colorado.
Extremist groups — or those inspired by extremist ideology — were responsible for 249 of those threats, representing the highest amount recorded by such individuals since 2004, according to the report. In addition, 39 anti-Semitic assaults were documented, marking a significant jump from 19 in 2017.
The ADL’s Center on Extremism had been aware of Holzer’s anti-Semitic threats for “several years” and contacted law enforcement on several occasions unrelated to his plans to attack the Pueblo community. They had concerns that he could be dangerous, the organization said on its website.
“It seems like anti-Semitism goes in waves. The political climate — on the extreme left and extreme right — is part of the problem,” Atlas-Acuña said.
Amid that backdrop and the plot against his congregation, there has been a wave of support, he said. Calls and emails from clergies and friends across the country have poured in, and law enforcement officials are expected to talk to the congregation Friday night to express their support.
On Tuesday morning, several signs were posted in front of the building that read, “Pueblo stands with you” and “Pueblo will not let hate win.” Flowers and candles decorated the synagogue’s steps.
In a meeting Monday, Atlas-Acuña said authorities assured him that Holzer never had legitimate explosives in his possession — only the inert pipe bombs and dynamite sticks that undercover agents used in their scheme to apprehend him.
The FBI investigation began in September when an agent pretending to be a fellow white supremacist contacted Holzer through Facebook. Holzer espoused white supremacist ideologies on his social media pages and posted photos of him wearing clothing with anti-Semitic symbols while armed, court documents stated.
Atlas-Acuña denied Holzer’s statements to authorities claiming he poisoned members of the congregation by planting arsenic in the temple’s water pipes last year. Before Monday, Atlas-Acuña said, he had never heard of Holzer, who lives in Pueblo.
“He is not even what I call a real Puebloan,” he said. “This is not the community we live in. People are very welcoming and accept us.”
As evidence, Temple Emanuel has been a home to the city’s Jewish community for 119 years.
“It takes someone from outside of the community to do this or even think of doing this,” he said.
Holzer was booked into the El Paso County Jail on Nov. 2 but was released to federal custody on Monday, said Jackie Kirby, spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
If convicted, Holzer faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison, U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said at a Denver news conference Monday afternoon. He’s due to appear in court Friday.