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Jewish community set to rebuild SW Houston synagogue after fire

November 29, 2018

Leaders of a southwest Houston synagogue spent Thursday amid charred rubble trying to make sense of the fire that destroyed their place of worship and developing plans to rebuild.

Dozens of people were inside the Torah Vachesed synagogue for a study group when the fire started around 9 p.m. Wednesday, but no one was harmed and the sacred Torah scrolls were recovered and relocated to the nearby Jewish community center.

Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian “is a very resilient man, his congregation is resilient, and the Jewish people are resilient, and these challenges hopefully make us stronger,” said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, the leader of the Torch Centre, a community center just steps away that was holding its own class when the fire broke out Wednesday night.

Congregants put up a semi-permanent tent in the synagogue parking lot Thursday to serve as the hub for repairs, paperwork and donations.

“We need to think,” said Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian, who was coordinating efforts from the parking lot. “We need a mobile office — a command center. We need a generator for the electric.”

From its front entrance, the Torah Vachesed appeared unharmed, but sunlight streamed inside through a hole in the roof, revealing dozens of broken ceiling tiles littering the floor and air conditioning duct spilling out from the ceiling. Dust and ash coated the floor, and water damage was apparent on the arks, or ornamental closets, that held Torah scrolls.

The fire seems to have started behind the building before spreading to the attic and roof, including the sanctuary that makes up the majority of the small building, Houston Fire Department Chief Herman Gonzales said.

While participating in a group study Wednesday night, congregants at the Orthodox Sephardic Jewish synagogue were surprised when constables ordered everyone to evacuate, Yaghobian said. The police happened to be driving by on Braeswood Boulevard when they saw smoke and rushed over.

The fire department arrived almost immediately, Yaghobian said. Once all lives were accounted for, congregants tried to return to retrieve the holy Torah scrolls, but firefighters wouldn’t let them.

“We were willing to jump in there, even if some of us were arrested, just to walk in and take those things,” Yaghobian said. “We would take whatever damage to our bodies. We didn’t want our holy articles being hurt.”

Wolbe commended the police and fire departments.

“They were so caring and sensitive to the religious needs, and when they heard there were Torah scrolls, they said, ‘Not a problem. We’ll go get them so soon as it’s safe,’” he said.

When that occurred, onlookers from the Torch Centre and Torah Vachesed were overjoyed, he said.

“The celebration that went on when the Torah scrolls were being brought out by the fire department was just unbelievable,” Wolbe said. “It was an emotional joy for everyone, and it was just very special.”

Although it lacks any formal ties to the synagogue, the Torch Centre has opened up to Torah Vachesed members, who will be worshiping there while working to repair their synagogue. Torch Centre members have also been keeping watch over the rescued scrolls, which are shrouded with cloth in one of the center’s small offices. Two of the scrolls received minor water damage but are otherwise OK.

The Houston Fire Department is investigating the source of the fire and whether arson is to blame, but congregants helping Yaghobian on Thursday morning said they doubt foul play is involved.

Wolbe agreed and said he never suspected that someone had targeted the synagogue.

“I hope it’s not just because I’m naive, but I really did not think for a second that there was any kind of foul play,” he said. “In my opinion, this is the most active synagogue on Earth. There are people here all hours of the day learning, praying, cooking, getting ready for an event. This is such a vibrant synagogue.”

That sense of community was apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding. The Meyerland-area synagogue flooded during the storm, and the damage took three months to repair, Yaghobian said.

“The synagogue was a place of assistance to others” even during the repair process, Yaghobian said. “This damage is far worse.”

Torah Vachesed is collecting donations via its website to help repair the sanctuary.

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