Arsonist swore to “kill” rabbi whose home was one of three destroyed in Midwood fire

A five alarm fire raced through three 100+ year-old houses in Midwood, resulting in 13 injuries.

A Pennsylvania man who allegedly torched a Brooklyn rabbi’s home and taking two others with it, went before a judge Sunday night smiling after getting arrested for attempted murder and arson charges in connection with the June 13 fire that injured 13.

Matthew Karelefsky, 41 was arraigned in Brooklyn Criminal Court and remanded into custody, but according to those in the courtroom, was smiling and “didn’t seem to care.”

Karelefsky had been active on Facebook where he made overt threats against Rabbi Jonathan Max of the Chaim Berlin School on Coney Island Avenue. Some of the threats included a tattoo on his arm that said, “Never let go of the HATRED – KILL Rabbi Max Yemach SHMO.”

Simon Giftor, a local journalist, said he talked to Karelefsky a week before after he made threats on Facebook. Giftor said Karelefsky was posting on line about the rabbi for the last few weeks and was threatening to kill the rabbi, but people “didn’t take him seriously.”

“People ignored him – hundreds of people knew – they called him a ‘whack job’ and nobody called police,” Giftor said.

The McKeesport resident wore a white t-shirt, black pants and sneakers, in cour and only spoke twice — when the judge issued a full order of protection for Rabbi Jonathan Max, whom he allegedly targeted last week.

Asked if he understood the terms and had any questions, Karelefsky said: “Yes, your honor” and then “No, your honor.”

The district attorney’s office made the case at his arraignment about why he was under arrest.

“There are receipts showing the defendants purchase for charcoals and matches,” said Assistant District Attorney Tziyonah Langsam. “[Karelefsky] also made admissions to setting the fire using gasoline and charcoal…This is after the defendant was tracked and found in Manhattan with a bag full of lighter fluid, an axe, and knives.”

The DA’s office also confirmed the existence of Karelefsky’s “Never let go of the HATRED – KILL Rabbi Max YEMACH SHMO” tattoo, which was first reported by the New York Post on Sunday.  Media outlets already knew about the tattoo the day of the fire, but held the story back until it could be substantiated.

Video from homes around the fire building showed a man in front of the house shortly before an explosion occurred at 1492 East 17th Street at 4 a.m. that morning. Another video, not released, showed what police believe is the man in custody.

“The defendant faces a significant jail sentence if found guilty on attempted murder in the second degree and arson in the second degree,” Langsam said, before asking that Karelefsky be remanded.

His Legal Aid attorney asked that he be released on bail, but it was denied.

Karelefsky is scheduled to be back in court on June 21.

All three of the 100-year-old Queen Anne style homes were destroyed in the fire, the rabbi’s home the worst of the three, collapsed after the fire was extinguished.

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Todd Maisel

Todd Maisel

Todd Maisel is an award-winning photographer with more than 35-years, specializing in breaking news. He currently serves as vice president of the New York Press Photographers. He was honored by the National Press Photographers Association and the Uniform Firefighters Association for saving the life of a firefighter he found in debris after the collapse of the World Trade Center, assisting in the rescue of an injured photographer, and for extensive coverage of the attack. Maisel is a graduate of NYU School of Journalism.


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