By Paul Bass
Less than three days before the festive holiday of Simchat Torah, in which Jews dance with the Torah, a fire engulfed a New Haven prayer house— but the the scroll inside survived.
The fire broke out Sunday, Sept. 26, at around 4 a.m. at 296 Norton St., in the heart of New Haven’s growing Chabad Lubavitch Chasidic Orthodox Jewish community.
Rabbi Berl Levitin, who lives on the second floor of the house with his wife Feiga, customarily wakes up at that time. He went into the kitchen to wash his hands. He smelled smoke from outside the house.
“Then I see red outside,” Rabbi Levitin, who is 69, recalled later that day. He went to the bathroom — and saw flames.
He woke up Feiga. They fled outside to safety. (No one else lives in the house.)
The fire department received the call at 4:12 a.m., according to Assistant Chief Justin McCarthy.
He said the three-alarm fire began on the rear of the first floor of the building. Sixty firefighters were called to the scene; they brought the fire under control at 5:26 a.m. (Firefighters from Hamden, West Haven and East Haven came to New Haven to help provide coverage for the rest of the city.)
The fire caused “pretty heavy damage” to the second and third floors, according to McCarthy. He said the cause of the fire is being investigated.
Mayor Justin Elicker, who came to the scene, said he was struck to find “that the couple lived in the home were so calm and at peace as they watched their home burning. When I approached, they expressed more concerns for the firefighters than any concern for themselves or the loss of their belongings. I imagine that deep faith is what drives such serenity at such a moment of loss.”
Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, McCarthy said; one, for instance, hurt his foot on a burnt-out portion of the rear staircase. All three were treated at the scene without needing to go to the hospital.
The Levitins escaped injury.
So did the Torah scroll.
296 Norton also houses an alternative prayer space, called The Schlounge, for young adults and young families who are connected to the Lubavitch community but weren’t regularly attending services at Congregation Chabad Lubavitch, the main synagogue next door at 292 Norton. (The Levitins conduct programs for elderly Russian emigres inside 296 Norton, as well.)
In 2019, the community found 40 donors to pony up $70,000 to purchase a kosher Torah scroll for services at the Schlounge. A festive celebration began at the home of the largest donor, Shmuel Aizenberg, where Rabbi Levitin and others filled in the final letters of the scroll. Then community members, led by a three-piece rock band from Brooklyn on a flatbed truck, paraded down Norton Street, where they danced with the scroll and then delivered it to the Schlounge.
Rabbi Levitin kept the scroll in a fire-proof safe. That made the difference Sunday morning.
Two days after the fire, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Jews chanted from and danced with Torah scrolls to mark the completion of the weekly public Torah-reading cycle, as part of the holiday of Simchat Torah which celebrates the Jewish community’s commitment to and love for the Torah’s teachings.
Because of the fire, the chanting and dancing won’t happen inside the Schlounge’s regular home at 296 Norton.
But because the scroll survived, the reading and dancing can still take place — next door, at Congregation Chabad Lubavitch. The congregation’s president, Moti Sandman, said Sunday that the scroll has been relocated there, and the members of the Schlounge will have their own space inside the synagogue to celebrate the holiday.
This article is reprinted with permission from New Haven Independent (newhaven independent.org).
Main Photo: Rabbi Levitin retrieves Torah scroll from fire-damaged house. (Paul Bass Photo)