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Suspicious Fire Strikes New Shul

Suspicious Fire Strikes New Shul

On the day before Rosh HaShanah last month, the newest synagogue in Far Rockaway was dedicated. Two members of the building committee of Agudath Israel of Bayswater affixed a mezuzah in a bronze case to the front door, Rabbi Menachem Feifer said some words of Torah, and nearly 200 members of the Jewish community sang and danced in joy.
The event culminated a three-year fund-raising campaign for the synagogue, whose members had been meeting for a decade in members’ homes and rented space in the Queens neighborhood.
This week they have to start over.
A suspicious fire on Saturday morning, on Shemini Atzeret, broke out in the women’s section of the one-story brick building on a residential side street, ruining the interior and damaging the just-completed structure.
"Everything is ruined: smoke and water damage," said Rachel Shapiro, a member of the building committee. "Every tallis needs to be cleaned."
The building, she said, is "unusable. It needs to be gutted and redone.
"Everyone is devastated," she said. "We’re not a community with money."
Two non-Jewish residents of the neighborhood spotted the fire and notified the Fire Department.
The synagogue’s five Torah scrolls were saved. A congregant, alerted to the blaze two hours before Shabbat services were to start, informed firefighters about the scrolls’ holy and financial value.
Fire Department detectives said the cause of the fire is suspicious but probably not a bias crime, Shapiro said.
"I suspect that it’s arson," she said.
While the building is unmarked, it is known in the neighborhood as a Jewish site, where congregants held prayer services for several years in a rented trailer. "I don’t know how anyone could say it’s not a hate crime," Shapiro said.
Meanwhile, the Nassau County Fire Department was investigating a fire that destroyed a barn on the property of the Beth Shalom Oceanside Jewish Center on Long Island on Friday night, a few hours after Shabbat services.
The two-story wooden building housed a tractor and old Jewish texts awaiting burial, said Leonard Lerner, synagogue executive director, who suspects "just kids with drugs. It’s not a bias crime."
"The barn burned down completely" but did not damage the synagogue, Lerner said.
The Nassau County Fire Department called the fire suspicious.
Neither the New York nor Nassau County fire departments returned calls for comment.
The Bayswater congregation, at 2422 Bayswater Ave., will have to rebuild the synagogue, replace destroyed prayerbooks and furniture, initiate another fund-raising drive for expenses not covered by insurance and find temporary quarters until the repaired building is completed, said Nachum Shapiro, synagogue president.
"It’s a major blow," he said, adding that the congregation was fortunate to have suffered the fire while empty and nobody was injured. "There is a lot to be thankful for."
The congregation raised the money for the building through a dinner and donations by synagogue members and outsiders. "It looks like we’ll have to start fund raising again," said Nachum Shapiro, Rachel’s husband.
The congregation, which held holiday services over the weekend at a member’s home and at the Young Israel of Bayswater, has not decided where it will hold interim services until the building is repaired.
The Satmar chasidic community, which conducts classes nearby in a trailer, has offered use of its space, Nachum Shapiro said, or the synagogue’s members may turn to the rented trailer on their own property whose utilities were cut off this week.
The Bayswater neighborhood, on the far side of Far Rockaway from the heart of the Jewish community, has experienced a Jewish growth in recent years, Nachum Shapiro said, mostly from Brooklyn and Queens. Young families are attracted by the area’s "affordability," he said. "It’s a nice area, it’s been a safe area."
The Agudath Israel synagogue regularly draws 100 worshipers for Shabbat services, half of them registered members.
"There is no history here of [anti-Jewish] problems," Nachum Shapiro said.
Might the fire worry prospective members?
"It is a concern. I don’t think it’s a major concern," he said.
Mezuzahs were posted on the synagogue’s inside doors during the recent dedication ceremony, he said, with an eye to the building’s inchoate status. "We put up most of them in temporary cases," Nachum Shapiro said. "It’s not 100 percent finished."
He noted that the mezuzah on the front door was not damaged by the fire.

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