Two days after a devastating fire gutted historic Congregation Poile Zedek in New Brunswick, its rabbi stood outside its charred brick façade and vowed to rebuild.
“Sure, we’ll rebuild,” said Rabbi Abraham Mykoff on Oct. 25, shortly after leaving a meeting with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which concluded the blaze “appears to be accidental,” although an exact cause has not yet been determined.
“We’ll start all over,” said Mykoff, adding he did not know where the congregation would be holding services or what religious articles may be needed. “The engineer said the structure is good.”
“I’ve received lots of offers of space from synagogues and churches,” he said. “It’s been very heartwarming.”
Firefighters arrived at 4:19 p.m., a short time before Shabbat, on Oct. 23 to find heavy smoke coming from the Orthodox synagogue, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The blaze was under control by 8 p.m., but damage to the building was “severe and extensive,” according to the prosecutor’s office.
A press release from Mayor James Cahill’s office said firefighters responded within minutes to discover smoke in various spots in the building. Shortly thereafter, flames broke through the roof.
The caretaker, the only person inside the shul, escaped unhurt. Nearby buildings were evacuated as a precaution.
Smoke could be seen rising for miles as firefighters from surrounding communities raced to offer mutual aid and helicopters circled overhead.
Jessica Wadkins, who works in Highland Park, was walking across the Albany Street bridge spanning the Raritan River between Highland Park and New Brunswick when she saw the synagogue roof engulfed in flames.
“It was like a big barrel of smoke,” she said. “It looked like a tornado.”
Mykoff ran into the burning building accompanied by a firefighter in an effort to save the synagogue’s Torahs.
“I handed him a Torah and went to get another when part of the chandelier came smashing down,” recalled the rabbi. “I said that’s enough.”
However, nine other Torahs, some of them pasul [unfit for use], were lost in the flames. Mykoff remained optimistic as he waited for officials to come and allow him into the shul for the first time since the fire. Although the basement, which houses study space, library, and auxiliary prayer space, had suffered some smoke and water damage, he hoped that some books and religious articles were salvageable.
Standing on the top level of the Wolfson parking deck directly across the street from the synagogue, piles of debris were visible inside the structure, whose roof collapsed. Stained glass windows were shattered and pieces of debris littered its steps. Yellow tape encased the building’s fence as a police officer sat in his vehicle in its driveway. Passing vehicles on Neilson Street slowed as they went by while pedestrians stopped to shake their heads in disbelief.
Robert Weiss of Highland Park found out from a police officer as he walked to Shabbat services that the fire had engulfed Poile Zedek.
“I’m devastated,” said Weiss as he stood staring at the synagogue. “I’ve been going here eight or nine years.”
Avraham Shusteris of Monsey, NY, recalled when he was a student at nearby Rutgers University, “this synagogue was my whole life. It gave me an opportunity to make a difference.”
The 114-year-old congregation, which once served the city’s large immigrant population, built the Neilson Street building in 1923. While the other Orthodox synagogues followed their congregants to neighboring Highland Park, the shul stayed, attracting nearby Russian immigrants and Rutgers students. Many in the 100-family congregation make the walk from Highland Park. It was placed on the national register in 1995.
Its sanctuary – with its high ceilings, rows of stained glass windows, elegant lamps gracing the bima, and striking turn-of-the-century art deco chandelier – was renovated about three years ago.
Shusteris, who speaks Russian, said he was able to act as “somewhat of a community liaison” to immigrant members.
“My last year I spent more time here than in class,” he said. “My connection to the rabbi and shul made a huge impact in my life. It’s really sad for me, a tragedy. When I look at that burned out building it’s like the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) has burned.”
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey released a statement, posted on its web site, noting it was “devastated” by the tragic fire.
“The thoughts of the entire Jewish community in the heart of New Jersey go out to all the families connected with the congregation today and from its inception,” it stated. “We are grateful to the fire departments that kept the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings and to all those who continue to assure the safety of the community.”
The federation has established an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, for those who wish to leave supportive messages for the congregation.