Los Angeles police were still searching Friday for an assailant who shot and wounded two men as they entered a synagogue on Thursday morning, in what officials are calling a senseless act of violence.
Initially investigated as a possible hate crime, city officials later said it was too early to determine the motive for the attack.
Shots rang out around 6:20 a.m., when an unidentified gunman wearing a black hooded sweatshirt entered the underground parking garage at the Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic congregation, opening fire on Mori Ben-Nissan, 38, and Allen Lasry, 53, police said.
He fired at his first victim, "without any words," and wounded him in the legs, LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Moore said.
He then turned to a second man, also shooting him in the legs, before fleeing from the garage on foot. The victims were in good condition at separate hospitals.
Police briefly held a teenager who matched a vague description of the attacker. But they released the 17-year-old a short time later and continued their hunt for the attacker.
Addressing reporters outside the taped-off synagogue, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the incident a "senseless act of violence."
"None of us should presume or speculate more about this other than it was a random act of violence," he said.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the city's Simon Wiesenthal Center, who was also at the scene, said: "We live in a world where hate crimes are part of our reality," but he did not speculate as to whether the shooting was a hate crime.
But he did say that in private briefings with law enforcement authorities, Jewish leaders stressed that the gunman could easily have had Adat Yeshurun under surveillance and learned that an early service takes place daily at 6:15 a.m.
"If someone was looking to be at the beit knesset when people would be around, 6:30 in the morning would be pretty much the perfect time," Cooper said. "Maybe it's a gang member or someone who's unstable looking for trouble. The other possibility is that he knows darn well where he was and why he was shooting."
Jewish organizations issued swift condemnations of the shooting, which brought to mind the shooting at Washington's US Holocaust Memorial Museum in June, when 88-year-old James W. von Brunn opened fire and killed a security guard.
Thursday's attack in Los Angeles took place 16 km. away from the site of a 1999 shooting at a Jewish community center, where white supremacist Buford Furrow wounded three children and two others. He later killed a letter carrier.
"While we have not confirmed the motive behind this horrendous act, we obviously take a shooting at a synagogue very seriously," said Amanda Susskind, a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Citing a recent hate crime report by the city's Commission on Human Relations, she said Jews in Los Angeles are disproportionately targeted for religious hate crimes.
"Statistics consistently show Jews to be far and away the most frequently targeted religious group, with 74 percent of hate crimes motivated by religion being perpetrated against Jews in Los Angeles County," Susskind said.
Police were reviewing Adat Yeshurun's closed-circuit video for possible leads. The synagogue, located at 12405 Sylven Street in a quiet, residential neighborhood, is relatively small, with 150 families as congregants. Originally founded by Moroccan Jews, it today serves a large concentration of Israelis who live in the neighborhood.
Yehuda Oz, 53, told the Jewish Journal that he was inside the synagogue with 15 to 20 other congregants preparing for morning services when he heard four shots.
One of the victims ran into the synagogue, "screaming for help," Oz said.
Hatzolah, the Jewish ambulance corps, responded with four volunteers. They are helping police notify local synagogues as a precaution.
"You can't take these things for granted," said Hatzolah's Zvika Brenner.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, of the 700-family Sephardic Temple Tiferet, said he learned of the shooting just as he was arriving home from a trip to Israel.
"Most people are afraid to go to Israel," he said. "Here, I come back from Israel and I find a violent act against a synagogue."
He said his synagogue would increase security over the next few days, "just to be cautious."
Since 9/11, his synagogue has employed an internal security director and security guards monitor the entrance at all times.
"I think the shooting at the JCC was the first impetus for more security," said Bouskila, who anticipated beefed-up security over the weekend, such as enhanced police patrols.
Bouskila called his colleague at Adat Yeshurun, Rabbi Amram Gabay, to express support.
"We're obviously very disturbed by it, not only as a Sephardic synagogue but as a Jewish institution," Bouskila said.
Thursday's shooting occurred a day after President Barack Obama signed legislation expanding federal involvement in prosecuting hate crimes as part of the $680 billion defense authorization law.
The homeland security legislation also included $19 million for a grant program to improve security for nonprofits and religious institutions. The funds represent a $4m. increase in the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, established in 2005.
Jewish groups such as Agudath Israel of America, Jewish Federations of North America and the Orthodox Union had pushed for the increase.
"Part of our built-in overhead has to be security and that's the truth. That's the state of the world today," said Cooper.
Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue with 750 families, beefed up security by closing multiple entrances and adding security guards.
Brian Greene, the executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center, said security guards are being "extra vigilant and visible at all entry points to the facility."