As a group joined at 9:00 p.m. for their nightly study session at Congregation Torah Vachesed in Houston, Texas, police deputies entered and ordered that the building be evacuated, due to a raging fire they spotted as they happened to be driving by on Braeswood Boulevard. The fire department arrived shortly thereafter, as congregants were attempting to re-enter and salvage the sifrei Torah.
The Houston Chronicle reports that firefighters thereupon prevented congregants from doing entering, and that after all lives were accounted for, the firefighters themselves went back in to bring out the five sifrei Torah. Two of the scrolls had sustained some water damage, however, according to the report.
“We were willing to jump in there and sustain whatever damage to our bodies,” said Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian, Rabbi of the Sefardic congregation in southwest Houston. “We didn’t want our holy articles to be hurt.”
When the sifrei Torah were rescued from the flames, onlookers from the Torah Centre and Torah Vachesed were jubilant, he said. “The celebration that went on when the Torah scrolls were being brought out by the fire department was just unbelievable,” said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, leader of the Torah Centre, a community center just steps away from the shul where the fire broke out. “It was an emotional joy for everyone; it was just very special.”
Rabbi Yaghobian thanked the firefighters and police for their bravery, sensitivity and understanding. “The firefighters saw how important it was to us. They were caring.”
Investigators for the Houston Fire Department are trying to determine how the blaze — which engulfed the back of the building and then spread to the attic and the roof — began. Some people reported hearing an explosion before the fire started. B’chasdei Hashem, no one was injured in the fire.
Seen from the front entrance, Torah Vachesed does not appear too badly damaged, but inside, sunlight streamed through a hole in the roof. Dozens of broken ceiling tiles littered the floor, which was coated with dust and ash; water damage was apparent on the aron kodesh.
Leaders of the synagogue spent Thursday sifting through the charred rubble as they attempted to come to terms with the fire that had destroyed their place of worship.
They have already begun developing plans to rebuild. On Thursday, congregants put up a tent in the synagogue parking lot which is serving as the hub for repairs, donations, and the processing of paperwork.
“Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian is a very resilient man, his congregation is resilient, and the Jewish people are resilient. These challenges hopefully make us stronger,” said Rabbi Wolbe.
“We need a mobile office — a command center,” said Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian, who was coordinating efforts from the tent in the parking lot. “And we need a generator for electricity.”
Torah Centre has opened up to Congregation Torah Vachesed, which will be davening there while their synagogue is repaired. The rescued sifrei Torah are being stored in one of the center’s offices.
The Rabbis do not believe that their synagogue was targeted. “I hope it’s not just because I’m naive, but I really did not think for a second that there was any kind of foul play,” Rabbi Wolbe said. “This is a most active synagogue. There are people here all hours of the day learning, praying, cooking, getting ready for an event. This is a vibrant synagogue.”
During Hurricane Harvey, the Meyerland-area synagogue flooded, and it took three months to repair the damage. The same sense of community was apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding is still apparent after this tragedy. “The synagogue was a place of assistance to others” even during the repair process, Rabbi Yaghobian said. “This damage is far worse.”