Fire Sparks a Memory

Sitting at my desk, reading eyewitness accounts of the fire at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City, I begin to sweat.  In an instant I find myself next door, watching from my neighbor’s front lawn as the firefighters bring the blaze under control.

More than ten years have passed, but I can still hear the sound of an explosion followed by the siren call of fire engines racing down the street.  I can still feel the intense heat of the flames as they consume the roof and burst toward my kitchen window.  It was a “fast burn” fire, yet it seemed to last hours. Later in the day I would learn that the fire department had arrived within four minutes of the alarm and quickly reduced the inferno to smoke and rubble.

Residents from up and down the street huddled together in the early morning twilight—the coolest hour of the day in Atlanta—seeking respite from the strange heat that filled the yard.  We were alone with our thoughts: Had the strong winds not died down overnight the destruction could easily have spread to our own homes…had a fireman not physically prevented Dan from going back inside to retrieve his glasses and wallet from his bedside table… I remember feeling helplessly beaten by nature and shamelessly grateful to have been spared.

Not one of Dan’s possessions was salvaged from the house after the fire.  But he took stock of what had been saved and decided to renew his lease on life.  While his house was being rebuilt, he sought medical attention for chronic ailments that had prevented him from living fully before the fire.  When he moved back into the neighborhood, he made an effort to visit with the neighbors and to spend more time socializing with life long friends. After the fire, he learned to live with loss because he had gained a new perspective on life.  The fire ignited awareness in our community of life’s fragility, and in the wake of its destruction we attempted to help each other more and to live better.

My prayers are with the people of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. While they rebuild their home I hope that they will also strengthen their community.


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