Lightning sparks fire at Gates of Prayer in New Iberia

Gates of Prayer in New Iberia is “very lucky” to still be standing after a fire was sparked this morning, apparently by a lightning strike.

That’s the assessment of Fire Chief Gordan Copell. The New Iberia Fire Department arrived at the synagogue around 9:30 a.m., right after the lightning strike was reported.

Employees at Schwing’s Insurance across the street heard the boom and called the fire department upon seeing smoke. The fire department, located four blocks away, was on scene almost immediately.

“If this would have happened at 2 or 3 in the morning when these streets are mostly vacant, by the time we would have got here it would probably be a total loss,” Copell said. “We were able to put a lot of people and a lot of equipment on it pretty quick.”

The fire was contained to the attic over the bimah. A couple of ventilation holes were cut into the roof to help battle the blaze. By 10 a.m., the scene was under control.

Robert Lahasky, congregational president, said there is an electrical box in the attic, over the bimah, that apparently was struck by the lightning and “basically blew up.”

Lahasky arrived as the fire trucks were pulling up. He, the fire chief and others went into the building to retrieve the Torahs before water was put on the building. They then were able to retrieve ritual items, such as the shofars, candlesticks, Kiddush cups and the podium, as well as artwork that had been done by local artists. Mayor Freddie DeCourt also helped with the effort.

Lahasky said Schwing’s “offered to store our stuff and protect it until we are ready for it.”

Adele Wormser said “I was blown away by what a community effort it was.”

Outside the attic, “everything in the structure is perfectly fine, except for water damage,” Copell said. There are some burnt beams in the attic, he added.

Lahasky said there was some water damage between the back wall of the synagogue and the religious school annex that was added later. “Nothing of significance was damaged,” but they will need to redo the roof structure and the electrical system.

Because the fire crew had to break through the doors, Lahasky and Larry Miller had to secure the building before the evening, Wormser said. The next day, a crew was working on the water damage.

Within two hours, numerous churches had contacted Lahasky to offer their facilities while Gates of Prayer undergoes repairs. Others have inquired about donating, but at this point the congregation does not know what may be needed. The building is insured.

Because nobody is holding in-person services, Temple Shalom in Lafayette invited Gates of Prayer to take part in their virtual services, and offered to house the Torahs in their ark. By coincidence, the next day, a vacant building in Lafayette that formerly housed a since-reunited breakaway congregation from Temple Shalom burned to the ground.

Gates of Prayer was built in 1903, with the assistance of the local Catholic community. When the congregation peaked at around 50 families, a wing with a social hall and classrooms was added in 1950. The congregation has never been large enough for a local, full-time rabbi, and currently has 24 members.

A student rabbi visits monthly to conduct services and lead Torah study, while lay leaders conduct services other weekends.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its age also likely contributed to its surviving the fire, Copell said, noting that older structures “were made out of solid materials… older structures do have more durability.”

“It could have been a lot worse,” Lahasky said.

(Updated throughout on May 1)

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.