Days before the start of Hanukkah, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in southwest Houston burned Wednesday night as dozens of congregants were meeting inside, authorities said.
No one was injured in the fire at the Torah Vachesed synagogue on South Braeswood Boulevard near Hillcroft Avenue.
The fire started around 9 p.m. as synagogue members were participating in a group study, according to the house of worship’s Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian.
Some of the congregants heard movement around 9 p.m., Yaghobian said. Moments later, deputies who happened to be passing by the temple burst through the doors and ordered everyone out .
The fire appears to have started on the back side of the building, according to Houston Fire Department Chief Herman Gonzales. It then spread up into the attic and onto the roof.
Photos captured by Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, who runs the nearby Torch Centre, shows heavy smoke billowing out of the top of the synagogue and pouring from the eaves of the building.
Houston firefighters were able to tap the fire out quickly, Gonzales said, and save several of the synagogue’s holy Torah scrolls. The Torah is the holiest book within Judaism, made up of the five books of Moses and handwritten by a scribe.
The immediate uncertainty of the scroll’s safety as the fire burned made some of the congregants uneasy, Yaghobian said.
Some even tried to run back into the burning building to save them, an attempt thwarted by firefighters who feared for the congregants’ safety. Instead, those same firefighters from Houston’s southwest side made a point to save the scrolls from being charred.
“I really want to thank the firefighters and police for their bravery, their sensitivity and understanding,” Yaghobian said. “We were willing to jump in there, even if some of us were arrested, just to walk in and take those things. We would take whatever damage to our bodies. We didn’t want our holy articles being hurt. The firefighters saw how important it was. They were caring.”
The scrolls – enclosed in elegant silver and gold furnishings – made it out of the synagogue unscathed.
A pair of scrolls did sustain minor water damage, Wolbe said. But the rest of them were in perfect condition.
The synagogue’s celebrations for Hanukkah, the festival of light, are understandably impacted, Yaghobian said – but the Jewish leaders are planning to work together with other nearby organizations to make sure they have the proper celebrations in place.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday night how the fire started, although HFD arson investigators are taking a look into how it ignited.
No injuries were reported.
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