“Fire destroyed our shul please help”
“Fire destroyed our shul please help” was the title of the email I received from my Rabbi in Miami, Rabbi Zeev Katz on Wednesday April 23. The desperate plea in his voice expresses how many of us, congregants of Chabad on Wheels in Miami Beach, feel today. I found out yesterday afternoon that my Jewish home and sanctuary for over two years, a place that had been integral to the development of my Jewish identity, had been devastated and its interior destroyed by an overnight fire. The fire is believed to have started around 2 am and cleared at around 7 am Tuesday morning, and the area is now under complete investigation as a potential arson / act of anti-Semitism. See below article about the incident for more info and a video at the scene.
Below is the Chabad website with images of the destruction and information on how to donate:
I spoke to the Rebbetzin, Rabbi Katz’s wife on the phone today and she told me that when the janitor of the synagogue first called them on Tuesday morning to tell them their synagogue had burned down, they thought it must be a joke. The Rabbi and his wife ran over to the synagogue, which had already been classified by the fire department as an accidental fire set off by lit candles inside the building. The Rabbi and Rebbitzen did not believe that was possible, and upon seeing littered pieces of Torah, prayer books and shawls that appeared intentionally destroyed, the police, CSI, and fire department returned and cordoned off the area as a probable crime scene. Besides some ripped remnants, the Torah is completely missing. The Rebbetzin says that the outpouring of support from community churches, synagogues, and citizens has been overwhelming and that while they hope to discover who and what was behind the fire, they are putting their focus on rebuilding the Chabad on Wheels.
Rabbi Katz originally began his Chabad several years ago using an RV called the “Mitzvah Mobile”, which he would drive to businesses, people’s homes, or park out by the pedestrian Lincoln Road to infuse a little Judaism in people’s lives. He used his RV, or Chabad on Wheels, to engage Miami Beach tourists and locals in putting on Tefillin and handing out holiday necessities such as Chanukah candles, maintaining the practice even upon founding the actual Chabad house. Rabbi Katz has touched the lives of hundreds of Jews worldwide, giving Miami tourists a temporary Jewish home and the Miami community a dedicated Shaliach to help add just a little more Yiddishkite into their lives.
I am completely shocked and saddened by this horrible event. Before moving to San Francisco in October, I had spent two years living a short walk from Chabad on Wheels in Miami Beach, and Rabbi Katz’s community was a large foundation of my Miami experience. I first went to Chabad for Yom Kippur services in October 2005 and was attracted to the humble sense of community and openness that I found. By January 2006, I was a regular at Shabbat services, which ranged from 15 people, just barely enough for a minyan on some evenings, to 70 – 80 for a big well-advertised Shabbat. I grew with Chabad, seeing the synagogue develop from only having Friday night services every other week to a full Friday and Saturday morning service offering.
A random assortment of recent transplants in their early 20s, along with occasional families, black hatters, non-religious senior citizens, and interested tourists made up the regular diverse mix of Chabad. Within the oddball assortment of Chabadniks, I made some of my best friends in the world, and in a place far from our own families; we became brothers and sisters to each other. Chabad on Wheels was a real community; we would all help out in the kitchen, preparing Shabbat lunches, decorate our synagogue together on holidays, have Shabbat dinner at our own homes and at the Rabbi’s home, celebrate birthdays together at Chabad, and talk to the Rabbi or the Rebbetzin about our every day life and challenges. Rabbi Katz put up the mezuzot in my apartment for me, guided my roommate and me in cleaning our house for Pesach, and just a year ago, I celebrated Pesach with Chabad. We had barbeques on Yom Tov, ate together in our Chabad sukkah and my close-knit Chabad “posse” of friends took road trips, went out on Saturday nights, and put on meals and parties together for every Jewish and secular occasion. My friends Joe and Ilana met a Chabad, announced their engagement on Shabbat, and we all went up to their Rabbi-Katz led wedding in New York. The posse Chabad girls again reunited in Israel this January for our friend Rachael’s wedding, and we held up a sign to make the bride laugh: “The posse formed at Chabad on Wheels.” These girls were the ones who inspired me to consistently push my spirituality and grow as a Jew, supported me in starting to keep kosher, and formed my Jewish home and family in Miami.
One of the most important days at Chabad was when we dedicated our Torah, which was a huge festivity symbolizing how important it was for our community to finally have its own sacred scroll. This Torah is now missing, with some parts desecrated by the fire. For someone who was intimately involve with Chabad on Wheels, what happened on April 22 causes real pain – that our synagogue was destroyed along with the objects most familiar and sacred to us.
Being 3,000 miles away now, I feel very removed from what is happening on the ground, and only through conversations with community members and the online images, can I try to understand. When I first saw the pictures, I had a horrible feeling in my stomach, like I was seeing destruction from Crystalnacht, and it is surreal to think that this is not 70 years ago in Germany – this is now and this is my synagogue. We do not know what happened and maybe never will, but this incident should serve as a reminder that we cannot take Judaism and our religious freedom for granted. I hope that Chabad on Wheels rebuilds with strength and dignity and continues its mission of making Judaism accessible and beautiful to the Miami community. I thank Rabbi Katz and the Chabad community for everything they do, and my heart is with them in this painful experience.
Please help to assist Chabad on Wheels in rebuilding:
You can send checks to:
Chabad Fire Fund Att Rabbi Zev Katz
PO Box 2591
Miami Beach, FL 33140
Or go to: http://www.chabadonwheels.com/ and click on the link to donate.