The fire at Congregation Kneses Israel at 3801 Nautilus Avenue was reported to the FDNY shortly after midnight on Thursday morning, with multiple fire trucks, Hatzolah and emergency crews racing to the scene.
Amateur cell phone video posted to the synagogue’s Facebook page show flames leaping out of roof of the large brick edifice as thick plumes of grey smoke pour through holes in the roof.
Known to locals as “The Big Shul,” Kneses Israel has been a fixture in Seagate for almost a century according to Rabbi Chaim Brikman, leader of the synagogue for the past 26 years. Attracting approximately 500 people from both Seagate and Coney Island for the Yomim Noraim, and home of Chabad by the Ocean, Rabbi Brikman said that Kneses Israel was the first synagogue in Seagate. He estimated that the three story brick building was built in the early 1920s.
“There is a lot of history here,” Rabbi Brikman told VIN News. “People who came here in the early days before Seagate became frum all came to daven here. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would daven here. Now we serve everyone in the community who doesn’t go to a Chasidishe shteibel.”
Rabbi Brikman said that he was contacted shortly after midnight this morning about the fire.
“The first thing I did was to run in and get some of the Sifrei Torah,” said Rabbi Brikman. “The place was already very smoked up and I am very grateful to the fire department for letting me go in.”
The remaining Sifrei Torah were rescued a short time later after the fire department deemed the building safe to enter. Rabbi Brikman returned to the synagogue along with Rabbi Zalmy Morazov, Rabbi Pinny Morazov and synagogue member Howard Londner to retrieve the rest of the shul’s eight Sifrei Torah. Londner was later treated for smoke inhalation.
“He is the hero of the night, together with the FDNY who went beyond what they were required to do to help us save the seforim,” said Rabbi Brikman.
The Sifrei Torah that were saved are believed to have been written sometime in the 19th century.
“We were told that they likely have a tremendous history and may be 150 years old,” said Rabbi Brikman. “Because of the style of the writing and the style of the parchment, they were likely written in Russia.”
This morning’s rescue marked the second time that Kneses Israel’s Sifrei Torah were saved from tragedy in recent years. All eight had been previously rescued when Hurricane Sandy unleashed its unprecedented wrath on Seagate in 2012.
FDNY Deputy Chief Peter Leicht said the first firefighters on scene encountered heavy smoke conditions from the fire which traveled through the attic from one end of the building to the other. The synagogue’s 20 to 30 foot high ceilings made it difficult for the approximately 100 firefighters who fought the blaze to access the flames, forcing firefighters to cut holes in the building’s roof. The cause of the fire is still unknown and the FDNY is continuing its investigation.
Many of the building’s vintage stained glass windows, as well as countless religious items in the shul, were destroyed. The synagogue, which hosted 100 guests each of the first two nights of Pesach for community sedarim, is currently not in usable condition.
“Most probably my house will become the shul, for now,” said Rabbi Brikman.
A post on the synagogue’s Facebook page bore testament to The Big Shul’s place of honor within the community.
“This is a tragedy for the whole community because the “big shul” is the pulse of the entire Seagate. After hurricane Sandy we united and became stronger. Let us do the same now and turn this tragedy into growth. Let’s fight this fire with the fire of love, friendship and community!”