Horodenke shul sets up emergency committee
A quick-moving blaze engulfed the Horodenke beis medrash Thursday morning, rapidly reducing the small Flatbush shul and the upstairs residence of the Rav and Rebbetzin to a smoldering, irreparable shell.
Three firefighters were injured by the fire, one of whom was hospitalized in Kings County Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after he fell down a flight of steps. The four sifrei Torah were removed with modest damage.
There was no one in the shul at the time. But the Horodenke Rav, Harav Chanoch Dov Aschkenazi, was described as “devastated” by the loss of his 35-year-old shul and home. He is currently weighing several offers of temporary homes to live in, and the shul has already taken up an offer to hold minyanim at a storefront on Avenue K, between East 29 and Nostrand.
An emergency meeting was planned for Thursday evening at the interim shul for all members to discuss how to rebuild the shul and the Rav’s residence as soon as possible.
Fire Department officials say that the fire began at about 9:00 a.m., when the shul was empty. The cause was under investigation, although the assumption is that something caught onto the candle burning atop the chazzan’s shtender. Within two hours the entire three-story structure burned to the ground.
“It was an old house,” Meir Weil, a mispallel, said. “It just spread very quickly.”
At one point, the flames were so intense that firefighters withdrew, thinking the building would collapse. A neighboring house was slightly damaged.
Mr. Weil said that the candles are lit before the first minyan and are usually kept burning, with the understanding that someone in the last minyan will put them out. On Thursday, an announced 9 o’clock minyan never materialized, so the candle was not extinguished.
The Horodenke Rebbetzin, who was upstairs in her apartment, smelled smoke and called the fire department. They managed to save the sifrei Torah, along with manuscripts the Horodenke Rav had inherited from his father, Harav Elimelech Ashkenazi, zt”l, the Melbourner Rav of Seagate, who was niftar last year, as well as from the Divrei Yoel of Satmar, zt”l.
“The fire department went out of their way to try to save the sifrei Torah, both from fire and water damage,” Mr. Weil said.
Although the sifrei Torah were slightly damaged, Mr. Weil said that they can easily be repaired.
Shuly Halpert, a former mispallel who is close to many of the shul members, said that the Rav and Rebbetzin have no children living nearby with whom they can stay, and they are considering several offers of accommodations.
“A number of people have offered their homes for the Rav to move into for nothing,” said Mr. Halpert, who was coming from the scene of the fire Thursday afternoon.
He added that there was no hope of repairing the shul.
“They could only work from the lot,” he said. “They have to knock down the building and rebuild.”
There are about 35 people who daven at Khal Horodenke on Shabbos. The shul was not covered by fire insurance, and a back-of-the-envelope estimate shows that it needs between $1.2 million and $1.5 million to reopen.