In 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, the sifrei Torah of Congregation Kneses Israel of Sea Gate were saved from flooding water by the shul’s rav. The shul, however, was destroyed.
Rabbi Chaim Brikman and his congregants rebuilt the upper floors of the beautiful synagogue, so this year’s Pesach sedarim were joyously celebrated there.
But on Chol Hamoed Pesach (a few minutes after midnight, April 13th), the sacred scrolls had to be saved again – this time, from a raging fire coupled with high-pressure water from the firefighters’ hoses. For this rescue, it took three Chabad rabbis and a congregant to get the job done.
Torah Scroll Relay Race
In a recent interview, Rabbi Brikman explained what happened: “I received a call telling me there was a fire in the shul. I ran, saw the firemen spraying with their hoses, and knew we had to get the Torahs out. Immediately, I called my brother-in-law, Rabbi Pinny Marosov (director, Chabad of Coney Island), to come with his car (Rebbetzin Brikman and her father, Rabbi Zalmen Marozov, came as well).
“I knew they wouldn’t let me go in if I’d have asked them. So I didn’t ask. I just ran inside and grabbed four scrolls, holding them tight to my chest. I ran back out to pass them to Rabbi Pinny. Then, I ran back in to get three more and back out again to give those to Rabbi Pinny. I went back in one last time for one last scroll which was locked in the safe.
“It was me, alone, with the firefighters spraying. I kept fumbling with the combination lock, couldn’t get it to open. Desperate, I called Mr. Howie Londner, who takes the Torahs out every Shabbos, knew the combination by heart and how to open the safe quickly.
“Then the firefighters yelled ‘Everyone out! All units out!’ Along with the FDNY, I was also ordered to leave the premises.”
“I had to get the Torah out, that’s it!”
Howie Londner picks up the story from there: “I got there, saw the rabbi talking to the police and asked, ‘Could I go in to open the safe and get the Torah?’ A fireman said I couldn’t go in there myself, but a cop said he’d go in with me.
“As soon as those words were out, I just ran in myself, I didn’t even look back. Ahead of me, all I saw was smoke. I needed a flashlight, so I looked back for the police officer, but no one was there.
“I had my phone [with a flashlight app] and I wasn’t going to leave without taking that Torah out. It took a few tries, but I got it open and took it out, then took myself and the Torah outside. That’s it.”
Asked about all the news stories featuring his heroic deed, Londner insisted: “I had to get the Torah out, that’s it!”
When asked if it’s a mitzvah to risk one’s life to save a Torah scroll, Rabbi Brikman answered: “In this situation, there was no time to research anything. How bad is the fire? How dangerous would it be to run in and get the Torah scrolls? At that point, you’re thinking, ‘This is the most precious thing to the Jewish nation. If something like this gets burned, it’s a terrible tragedy for the Jewish people.’ So we didn’t stop and think, ‘Should we run in and get the Torah, or not?’”
Howie Londner added: “I felt the same way running into the shul. I was coughing. I was thinking, ‘I have to get this Torah!’ Without the Torah, what else do we have?” (Londner was later treated for smoke inhalation at a local hospital and released.)
Commenting on the weight of Torah scrolls, Londner said, “Our biggest one must’ve been 30 pounds.”
At this, Rabbi Brikman smiled, “Well, I wasn’t running with all seven at one time!”
Rebbetzin Rivkah Brikman sees the positive. “There is a Jewish song, ‘Fire and Water – Aish V’Mayim.’ Basically, our Torahs went through fire and water. First, we saved them from Sandy – and now this. You have to realize there are other communities that have to bury their Torahs. Baruch Hashem, we merited to save ours – from fire and water.
The Rebbetzin continued, describing other miracles: “This was a beautiful European-style shul, built in 1924. People would walk in and say ‘Wow!’ After Sandy, we raised funds to renovate the top floors and were just getting ready to do the lower level. Now, the upstairs and downstairs are completely ruined. But the structure is still standing – which is a miracle in itself.”
The Rabbi elaborated: “The fire department brought in 200 firefighters from all over Brooklyn and Staten Island – because, usually, a wooden structure like this burns down completely and they were prepared for a total collapse. But that didn’t happen.”
A Shul for Every Jew
“We’re the Chabad emissaries of Sea Gate and we came here 26 years ago, in 1991. We got a blessing from the Rebbe to come to Sea Gate to reach out to every single Jew here,” said Rebbetzin Brikman.
“The week before, we had a Pesach Seder at the shul with 80 people attending. Then, two weeks later, without a space and without a synagogue, we packed 150 people into a room for our Friday night dinner – because it was on our calendar do to it and we would not give up. Everybody came.
“We’ve put up over 800 mezuzot in the Sea Gate area in the past year and a half. It’s unbelievable. We have 2,500 families in this community.”
“A week before the fire, we distributed 500 packages of shmura matzoh,” said the rabbi.
Rebbetzin Brikman noted another miracle realized after the fire: “It is important to remember that the person who ran into the shul for the Torah was a baal teshuva.”
Why did Hashem bring this challenge to people who are good, loyal and loving Jews?
Howie Londner answered: “G-d works in mysterious ways. I had a motorcycle accident once and for 40 years I had back problems. One day, I was riding and I saw a dog off a leash in the street staring at me. I didn’t want to hit the dog, so I went this way and that way and fell on my back. Since then, my back doesn’t hurt anymore. G-d fixed my back.
“The rabbi was walking into the bowels of the hospital to find me. I don’t even know how he found me.
“Before the accident, I went to the shul every Friday night for peace of mind. I was following along with this other guy. He said Kaddish, so I said Kaddish.
“Now, I’m here all the time. I tell myself, ‘Whatever they need, I’m going to help them’ – that’s the way it worked for me.”
Rebbetzin Brikman answered the same question: “I think that why Hashem allowed this to happen is not something that we ask. We had so much nachas with the people coming to the shul after the fire. What I mean is, all the people that belong to the shul came outside crying and got so emotional watching the fire.
“And you think: Some of them only come once a year for Yom Kippur. But when this fire happened, people gathered together saying, ‘My shul, my shul, my shul.’ It was personal – this fire happened to them, to their beloved place. I think Hashem had nachas that the people themselves expressed how much they felt connected.
“It is said that when you go through a difficult time, the difficulty is that you’re going through a hardship and nobody understands you. You’re all by yourself. The consolation – after the fire – was that we felt everybody was in the same pain as us. It was their second home.”
Rabbi Brikman added: “I have to tell you something that I found amazing. You ask why Hashem allowed it. But it’s irrelevant why Hashem allowed it. I can’t explain that because I am not Hashem.
“What happened was not our choice. But how we react – that is our choice. Are we going to take something tragic and turn it into an opportunity to recognize that fire is a passion and that we have to keep peace with the fire in our souls? That’s our message.
“I was so impressed that every person I met, regardless of his or her level of observance, asked: ‘Were you able to save the Torahs?’ I couldn’t find one person who didn’t ask about the Torahs. When I answered, ‘Yes!’ the reaction was indescribable.
“The Torah, in essence, is the holiest thing that we own.”
“The fire wasn’t caused by arson,” said Rabbi Brikman. “The firemen showed us exactly where it began – all the way up in the corner of the attic, with old dry wires suddenly producing a spark which triggered the entire blaze.”
Rebbetzin Brikman concluded: “We are rebuilding now and it is going to take a long time. Anyone who wants to come to our aid, visit matchathon.com/seagatefire.”
Story and photos originally published by The Jewish Press Magazine