BONUS Memory Lane: The Fire at Sfas Emes, When Boro Parkers Mourned Burned Sifrei Torah

BONUS Memory Lane: The Fire at Sfas Emes, When Boro Parkers Mourned Burned Sifrei Torah

Yehuda Alter

As we continue to mourn the churban of the beis hamikdosh, we recall a tragic story in which sifrei Torah were consumed by fire, back in 1949. The sad saga—culminating in a toll, and the mournful weeks that followed— began at 3:30 on Sunday morning, January 2, 1949, as the Forverts reports: 

“Fire destroys Brooklyn shuls, 14 sifrei Torah burned. A fire broke out Sunday at dawn, quickly engulfing the Sfas Emes Shul in Brooklyn, 1337 42nd Street, consuming everything…among them were rare, old sifrei Torah. In addition, many rare, antique seforim which cannot be brought anywhere where also burned. The precise origin of the fire is unknown, it is being investigated; but what is known is that in that district there have been in recent years a number of suspicious fires at Shuls. 

The Daily News picks up the coverage from here—under the headline; “Fire Razes Synagogue, 35 flee in cold—baby carried to safety. The flames were discovered by Arnold Schneiderman, 18, of 1339 42nd Street, next door to the synagogue, as he returned home. He roused his parents Nat and Claire Sneiderman, and then went upstairs woke up Jack Wilk and his wife Dorothy and carried the Wilks’ 5-month-old baby son to safety.”  

Readers may recall that Reb Yaker Biegeleisen—who was a renowned seforim expert, and a central personality at Sfas Emes—assembled a unique, extensive seforim library for the shul. In addition to selling seforim to institutions and talmidei chachomim throughout America, he dealt with libraries and collections—matching entire libraries with aficionados and collectors who thirsted for them (one example of this was when he procured a collection of hundreds of seforim for Yeshiva Rabbenu Chaim Berlin from the estate of a professor in Boston to whom he had previously supplied that very collection). 

Thus we read in the following caption the Eagle coverage of the fire: “Charred: remnants of the ‘Torahs’ arebeing salvaged by Jacob Karp, elder of the congregation Sfath Emeth, after fire gutted the interior of a New York Jewish temple. A library of rare books was lost.” Presumably, many of those ‘rare books’ came from the painstakingly aggregated treasure of Reb Yaker…   

Farewell at the Sfardishe Shul 

With the Shul being located on 42nd Street near Fourteenth Avenue, it does not come as a surprise that a gathering to formally mourn the sifrei Torah was held at Congregation Anshei Sfard, which is located only three blocks away, spacious and respectable. 

“More than 1,000 members of Congregation Sfas Emes attended burial services for 18 holy scrolls and 5,000 religious books yesterday in a neighboring synagogue, Congregation Anshei Sfard,” reports the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Monday January 24. 

“Rabbis William Drazin and Meyer Pinsky (longtime rov of the ‘downstairs minyan’, a brother in law of Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz) officiated at the services. Cantor Joseph Mandelbaum, also of the host synagogue, sang the prayers during the services. Abraham Holland, president of the ruined temple, declared that despite the destruction of their house of worship, the congregation would remain united. 

“After the services, the holy scrolls which were placed in a cement coffin, and the religious books in bags, were taken to Beth David Cemetery on a truck and buried in a plot owned by the congregation.” 

The sifrei Torah were laid to rest in the Sfas Emes section at Beth David, in the rear part of the section, near the innocent children who, like them, ascended to shomayim in purity—bringing to a close a tragic saga in the annals of Boro Park history, which elicited the expressions of kavod haTorah and love for Torah, in Boro Park of Yesteryear. 

UPDATE: Tornado Touches Down in Bay Ridge, Topples Multiple Trees
  • Jul 25 2023
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  • 7:29 PM

BONUS Junior Chef: Burning Beis Hamikdush
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