On Rosh Hashana in 2012, Evette Katlin, who sings in the choir of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, was hit hard by the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?”
Just days earlier her home had been destroyed by a fire. She understood at a deeper level what the prayer means. “We have a lot of choice and control, but there are things in our life that we don’t have control over,” she said.
Eighteen months later, Evette and her husband Art, the hazan, or cantor, of the synagogue, are still learning lessons from the fire. They and their teenage son Aaron were getting ready for bed on Sept. 5, 2012, when they heard the smoke detector go off. They rushed downstairs in their pajamas. They tried to attack the flames with a fire extinguisher, but to no avail, while their son called 911 — all in the space of about three minutes.
Evette grabbed her wallet and purse, but the flames, whose source was never determined, engulfed their house, and they lost everything.
Although they have now been back in their rebuilt house since May 1, the emotions of loss are still there. “It’s very painful because even though we realize and know it’s ‘things,’ it is part of your life’s identity, part of your history,” said Art.
Memory is indeed tied up in objects, and both Art and Evette lost irreplaceable items with huge emotional resonance. For Art, they included his great-grandmother’s wedding siddur from Hungary in the 1800s, family pictures, and live concert recordings plus the “perfect” chandelier that Art, as a kid, spotted in a store window. When his parents left his childhood home, they passed it on to Art and Evette. “I remember my father painstakingly wrapping each strand of crystal so it remained safe, and it took 12 hours to pack and clean it — it was a labor of love,” he said.
For Evette, an only child of a single mother, it was the hand-painted rocking chair that her grandmother used to rock her in when she was a young child. “That was my memory of my grandmother who took care of me and raised me from infant to teenager,” she said
Although the couple has tried to keep their painful losses in context, Art explained, “Even though intellectually you are able to, there is a sense of mourning, because a part of you is gone.”
For their children, the fire coincided with big life changes. Their son, a graduate of Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pa., was up a little late preparing his backpack, excited to be starting the next day at Lawrence High School. For their daughter, Shara, it was the first night in her dorm at college.
The Katlins appreciate how generous and supportive the whole community has been, including their son’s high school. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, congregants offered the family furniture, clothing, and dinners. Linda Meisel, executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, in conjunction with the Chesed Committee at Adath Israel, took up a collection for the Katlins, and the congregation, extended community, and Art’s colleagues responded generously, he said. The money collected has been and will continue to be used for costs not covered by insurance.
The townhouse they lived in was completely destroyed. For seven weeks they stayed at a hotel, and then they found a rental property.
The Katlins said they have gained insight into how to provide similar support to others. When they volunteered at the hurricane relief center at the Jersey shore last summer, they spent time with people worse off than their own family. “It was very humbling,” Art said. “You realize the blessings you have: how resilient and giving my kids are, how your family bond and community bond got stronger.”
At High Holy Day services following the fire, Art was hit by the words of the liturgy: “The great shofar is sounded; and a still, small voice is heard.” The blast of the shofar connotes judgment day, he said, “but in the back there is this small voice giving hope and direction for a better year to come — in the midst of this fear, anxiety, and awe of God as judge.”
Usually the Katlins use the pre-High Holy Day period as a time to reflect and make goals for the coming year, but in 2012 their goals were snatched away by the fire. Citing an old Yiddish saying, Art mused, “‘Man plans and God laughs.’ You can say, ‘Poor me; I’m a victim’ and throw up your hands, or you can say, ‘We’re going to get through this; nothing has changed; we are together; we are a family; and we will make it work to the best of our ability.”
The couple believes it is important to share the practical lessons they have learned from the fire. The first is to have a family emergency plan. “Make sure your kids know what to do, because you never know when it is going to happen to you; none of us are spared,” said Art. Evette added another piece of advice: “You need to take pictures of everything.”