Memory Lane: The 1934 Fire at Congregation Zemach Zedek

Memory Lane: The 1934 Fire at Congregation Zemach Zedek

In the summer of 1929—the Rayatz of Lubavitch, ailing in body, but with an inextinguishable fire in his soul, arrived in America. He would tour about a dozen American cities—in each of which he would leave a great impression. The purpose of the trip was twofold: The first was to to strengthen the beleaguered Jews of Russia. But he devoted a great deal of energy to the spiritual plight of American Jewry, and immediately began laying the foundations for what has continued to grow since that time into a vast empire throughout the United States—as we read in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 18, 1929: 

“After an enthusiastic reception in Brooklyn yesterday, Rabbi Joseph Schnayerson, Chief Rabbi of the so-called ‘Lubawitzer Rabbis’ today turned his attention to the Jewish problems in this country….. During the three months he will be here before returning to Latvia, Rabbi Schnayerson will make his headquarters at 4515 14th Avenue, made ready for him by Congregation Zemach Zedek. So great was the crowd waiting to greet him when he arrived in that section of Boro Park with his party, that 100 patrolmen, 10 sergeants, and a number of motorcycle policemen were on duty.” 

In the video from that day, one can clearly see the Shul as it existed then (seen here following the fire), and when it pans around to the crowd of 1,000 rain-drenched people, we can clearly make out the Sfardishe Shul, which was directly across 14th Avenue. 

Standing upon the balcony of 4515 14th Avenue, overlooking the massive crowd, the Rebbe called out: “Hashem has crowed us with the title of ‘one nation in the land’—thus all Jews, in the many lands, are really woven through with one thread of Ahavas haTorah. It gratifies me to see so many yidden on this side of the ocean permeated with the warmth of the Torah centers of the old home, and this gives hope that we will be able to spread Torah here in that very same spirit.” 

Following his whirlwind tour, the Rebbe Rayatz, returned to his people—and would endure enormous suffering, until miraculously making it back to America in 1940. 

Rescued from the Flames 

As we can see in the accompanying photograph, the residential quarters of the Simpson family were located above the Shul. Five years after the historic visit, a fire broke out at the Shul. On January 3, 1934, the Daily News reports: “Patrolman John Aviola of the Borough Park Station yesterday guided seven children and their mother, family of the Rabbi, to safety in a fire which gutted the building at 4515 14th Avenue, Brooklyn, housing the synagogue of the congregation Zemeck Zedeck. 

“On a second trip through the smoke-filled structure Aviola carried a woman invalid to the street. The fire, which did $10,000 damage, routed ten synagogue worshippers. One Joseph Deutch, a realty dealer at 4511 14th Avenue, rescued the scrolls. The blaze, police were told, was caused by a defective flue in the second floor apartment occupied by Rabbi Elias Simpson... Aviola, the first n the scene, found dense smoke pouring from the windows and, after being told there are people inside, he entered…firemen extinguished the blaze, but not before it had burned the interior of the building. The Rabbi’s library was destroyed.” 

A few months later, the newspaper published a photo (featured here) of the family expressing their gratitude to patrolman Aviola for his daring rescue. Featured are the Simpson children: Louis—Leibel, founder and proprietor of Simpson’s Jewelry. Carolyn—Rebbetzin Kreine Rosenfeld who along with her husband succeeded Rabbi Simpson at the Shul. Solomon—Sholom Ber Simpson, longtime secretary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he passed away in recent months. Seymour,—Shimon Aaron. Ruth—Rachel Feldman, wife of Reb Mendel, talmid Of Rav Shlomo Heiman and longtime educator. Miriam— Miriam Gordon, wife of Reb Sholom Ber Gordon, of Newark fame.

This was not the end of 4515 14th Avenue—for following the razing of the building, the next occupant of the property was the flagship Agudath Israel of Boro Park, and today host to a beis Yaakov, a succession of many decades of Torah life in Boro Park of yesteryear.  

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