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Arsonist sets fire to Florida Jewish center, but police do not believe it was a hate crime

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A South Florida Jewish center suffered severe damage in a weekend arson fire that police believe was set by a mentally ill homeless man who previously confronted the rabbi and others.

Rabbi Chaim Slavaticki said Monday that the man accused of setting the fire sat down in front of his family's car on Friday evening in the alley behind the Las Olas Jewish Center, raised his middle finger and would not let them pass as they arrived for a Shabbat dinner with the community.

“He was saying negative things and having us go around,” Slavaticki said. He said the suspect had twice previously made obscene gestures at him and had run-ins with others at the center.

Scott Hannaford, 50, was arrested Saturday and charged with arson, Fort Lauderdale police said in a news release. He was being held Monday at the Broward County jail on $100,000 bail. The public defender’s office said its attorneys have not yet been appointed to represent him.

Hannaford is a homeless man “who appears to suffer from mental illness” and the fire is not believed to be a hate crime, the police statement said. No one was in the building and no injuries were reported.

Security video shows a man setting fire to a minivan belonging to Slavaticki’s wife shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday as it was parked behind the two-story building, which is on a street lined with popular restaurants and bars.

The fire spread into the structure, which also houses the Friendship Circle, a nondenominational program for 175 special-needs children and young adults. It also includes a restaurant that employs 12 special-needs adults who are learning life skills.

The kitchen and its equipment were heavily damaged and it will be closed for months. The rest of the building will be closed for at least several weeks. Slavaticki and his staff are looking for nearby locations to relocate the center's programs.

He said the only object that survived from the minivan was a prayer book, which was barely damaged.

Slavaticki said while insurance might cover some of the damage, members of the community and from as far away as Japan have reached out to assist with the repairs.

“Our unity is our strength. This place is going to increase to be a greater light for the people around us. We pray for better days,” he said.