For the first two days of Passover, the Kneses Israel Synagogue of Sea Gate—blocks from the ocean and adjacent to Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y.—was buzzing with activity. There were communal seders, inspiring talks and soulful prayer services, morning and night.
But on Chai Nissan shortly after midnight, Shluchim Rabbi Chaim and Rivkah Brikman got a phone call from a local Hatzolah emergency-services member, telling them the synagogue they led—and just left, really—was ablaze.
The rabbi rushed over to the synagogue, four blocks from his home, with one overriding thought: to save the Torahs.
“I’m amazed that everywhere I went after the fire, the first question from anyone I met was: ‘Were you able to save the Torahs?’ ” Brikman tells Chabad.org. “They may not always come to Friday-night programs or holiday services, but this so concerned them. You could see on the change on their faces, their relief when they heard that the Torahs were out.”
Accomplishing that wasn’t so easy.
As the fire department worked to put out the flames, Brikman and Rabbi Pinny Marozov, co-director of Chabad of Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., raced inside to save the eight Torah scrolls—some of which date back 150 years. They got seven Torah scrolls out, but the last one was stored in a safe that Brikman had trouble opening.
He immediately called congregant Howard Londner, who rushed to the scene.
“The firemen didn’t want to let me in, but a police officer said he would go with me. I didn’t even wait; I just ran inside,” says the 63-year-old Sea Gate resident. “I didn’t even realize the officer wasn’t with me until I turned around to ask him for his flashlight. Luckily, I had my iPhone and used that for light.”
He says he tried once, twice, and then a few more times to get the safe open, hearing crackling sounds nearby and feeling the water being sprayed on the building. While the safe itself was fireproof, it was potential damage from all the water that worried them. Londner remained undeterred.
“The Torah has kept the Jews alive for thousands of years,” he says by way of explanation for his persistence. “Other societies are long gone, but we keep going because of the Torah.”
At last, he succeeded in getting the final Torah out of the building. Londner suffered smoke inhalation, but otherwise was fine.
Though the synagogue exterior still stands, the inside remains in shambles, filled with ruined prayerbooks, tallises and other spiritual items.
“People are calling and coming by . . . everyone is so emotional. People tell me, ‘Rivkah, I had a bar mitzvah here, or my son got married here, or I say Kaddish here. Please save the structure of the shul.’ ”
‘We Will Rebuild’
Built in 5684 in the grand European style of synagogues of previous eras, Kneses Israel has seen generations of families pass through its doors. For the last 25 years, the community has been led by the Brikmans, who also direct Chabad of Sea Gate/Coney Island.
The couple was sent by the Rebbe; it was the Rebbe who urged Rabbi Brikman to accept the position as the rabbinic leader of the synagogue when it was offered to him.
“This shul means so much to everyone in the community,” says Rivkah Brikman, “with each person affected on his or her own level.” She recalls a particular anecdote with the empathy of a mother, grandmother and teacher: “One of the children in the congregation is still very sad. He was worried about the ‘Candyman’ losing all of his treats in the fire,” referring the gentleman who handed out sweets to the youngest members during weekly services.
The Brikmans estimate that it will take more than $1 million to repair the building and replace what was lost—something the small community cannot do on its own. “Thank G‑d, we have some insurance,” says Brikman, knowing they have a long road ahead. “People are telling us we will rebuild, bigger and better . . . and that G‑d is with us in this situation.”This is not the first time the synagogue has had to be restored.
In Cheshvan, 5773, Hurricane Sandy sent water surging into Sea Gate homes and businesses. No one was spared, and neither was the synagogue. Water flooded the building, destroying the first two floors.
The Brikmans managed to renovate the main floor, but not the lower level. They have been using the upper floors ever since for daily services, Friday-night dinners, classes, youth programs and holiday events.
The fire has brought them full-circle, once again facing the daunting task of refurbishing the grand synagogue that means so much to so many, but they plan to move ahead with the support, love and concern of the greater Jewish community.
An emergency fundraising campaign for $50,000, launched right after the fire to help cover immediate needs, is within a few thousand dollars of being reached.
“We are certainly moving forward,” affirms Rabbi Brikman. “We had a minyan the morning after the fire at my house, and we had one that Shabbat. What I want people to understand is the Rebbe’s message that what G‑d gives us is not our choice, but how we react to it is. We need to take everything and turn it into a positive. It has to be a catalyst, and we have to grow from it.
“That’s why I say we have to build it better than before with even more programs. If G‑d sent the fire, then we must take the fire of our soul and our passion to do even more. We will turn around and say if there is a physical fire, there must be even stronger personal fire in Yiddishkeit. That is our message.”