The Mercury News
A South San Jose Jewish community is looking for answers after their synagogue burned down Wednesday morning.
Security camera footage showed the fire starting in the Chabad House’s carport around midnight, said Rabbi Mendel Weinfeld. It burned for several hours, died down and reignited. The rekindled flames then spread through the interior of the synagogue.
“The fire went to all sides of the building,” Weinfeld said. “The whole building is a loss.”
Weinfeld said the synagogue at 1088 Branham Lane was not equipped with fire alarms. Several people walked past the building while the fire was burning, the rabbi added, but the fire was not reported until 7 a.m., when waste collectors arrived to pick up the garbage.
The synagogue’s Torah scrolls were spared thanks to the timely intervention of a community member and firefighters, Weinfeld said.
“The most precious thing in a synagogue is the Torah scrolls, and one brave community member actually came running and was able to, with the help of the firefighters, recover the Torahs,” Weinfeld said. “But many other holy books were burned.”
The community member – Jacob Cohen, 53, of San Jose – said he rushed to the scene after learning from a friend that the Chabad House was on fire. Cohen explained to firefighters the importance of the Torah scrolls and asked if they could be saved.
“I’m not the type of person who believes in saying, ‘Oh yeah, I did this great thing.’ I was just there at the right time,” Cohen said. “I think it’s really the firemen who went in there and pulled them out.”
While the start of the fire was caught on camera, the footage doesn’t tell the entire story, Weinfeld said.
“There is something blocking the area,” he said.
Weinfeld said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, but he noted that “synagogues don’t burn down every day.”
“We don’t know if it was a hate crime,” he said.
Cohen, meanwhile, speculated that the fire might have a less sinister origin.
“I can’t tell how it started and why it started,” Cohen said. “If I had to guess, living in San Jose, it was probably a homeless person trying to stay warm. It’s a miracle that no one got hurt.”
The San Jose Fire Department did not immediately return messages seeking additional information about the fire.
Weinfeld moved to the Bay Area from Brooklyn, New York, about two years ago to establish the Chabad House. The synagogue held its grand opening in September, during Rosh Hashanah.
Efforts are already underway to raise funds to rebuild the synagogue, Weinfeld said. An online fundraiser — www.gofundme.com/f/rebuildchabad — had raised more than $16,000 of the $250,000 goal as of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Our message is clear: We don’t give in. We fight. And we will rebuild bigger and stronger. That’s what the community deserves at this time and everyone is behind us,” he said.
“The fire of Judaism is going to last a lot longer than this fire that burned down our synagogue.”