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 come back.
“Sure, we’ll rebuild,” Rabbi Abraham Mykoff said on October 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,” Rabbi Mykoff said, although he does 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 added. “It’s been very heartwarming.”
Firefighters arrived at 4:19 p.m., a short time before Shabbat, on October 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 places 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.”
Rabbi Mykoff ran into the burning building, accompanied by a firefighter, in an effort to save the synagogue’s Torah scrolls. “I handed him a Torah and went to get another when part of the chandelier came smashing down,” Rabbi Mykoff said. “I said that’s enough.”
Nine other Torah scroll were lost in the flames; some of them had been pasul — unfit for use. Rabbi Mykoff remained optimistic as he waited for officials to come to allow him into the shul for the first time since the fire. Although the basement, which houses study space, the library, and auxiliary prayer space, had suffered some smoke and water damage, he hoped that some books and religious articles were salvageable.
From the parking deck directly across the street from the synagogue, piles of debris were visible inside the structure, whose roof had collapsed. Stained glass windows were shattered, and pieces of debris littered its steps. Yellow tape encased the building’s fence, and a police officer sat in his vehicle in its driveway. Passing vehicles on Neilson Street slowed as they went by, and pedestrians stopped to stare.
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,” Mr. Weiss said. “I’ve been going here eight or nine years.”
Avraham Shusteris of Monsey, N.Y., said that when he had been 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.
The building was placed on the national register in 1995. Its sanctuary — with its high ceilings, rows of stained glass windows, elegant lamps on the bima, and striking turn-of-the-century art deco chandelier — was renovated about three years ago.
Mr. 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 website, 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 continued. “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 email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, for anyone who wants to leave a supportive message for the congregation.
This story was first published in the MetroWest New Jersey Jewish News; Debra Rubin is the paper’s Middlesex bureau chief.