Photo courtesy Tallahassee Fire Department/Facebook
An early-morning fire gutted the Chabad of the Panhandle building in Tallahassee on May 8. The building was unoccupied at the time and there were no injuries, but the Torah scrolls and hundreds of books were also lost.
The Tallahassee Fire Department was dispatched at 3:21 a.m. According to the Fire Department, “Upon arrival, TFD crews found fire showing and heavy smoke coming from the eaves. TFD crews made entry, but due to fire conditions and the integrity of the building, had to go defensive on fire attack.”
Jimmy Patronis, the State Fire Marshal, said the fire is under investigation. He said once the smoldering ends, they will have better access. “Rabbi Oirechman is a fixture in Tallahasse’s Jewish community, and we offer up our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
Rabbi Schneur Oirechman was in south Florida, visiting alumni, parents of students, donors, and other supporters, when he was informed about the fire. “Chanie and I are shocked and overwhelmed by this terrible fire; fortunately, no one was injured,” he said.
He posted online that “We still know very little, as the fire department has not let anyone into the building and the cause of the fire is still being investigated.”
The Oirechmans founded Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle in 2000, serving Tallahassee and Florida State University. The more recent Chabad centers in Panama City Beach, Destin and Pensacola are considered to be branches of the Tallahassee center.
For the last 10 years, the Moris and Lillian Tabacinic Chabad Center has been the center of Chabad activities in Tallahassee. Oirechman said “Thousands of Jewish students and members of our community met one another at Shabbat and holiday services and meals, participated in Torah study, and witnessed acts of kindness that emanated to all areas. While that is something no fire can negate, we are now faced with the destruction not only of the building, but of our Torah scrolls, literally hundreds of books, and our kitchen and all our other facilities.”
Oirechman told the Tallahassee Democrat that Shabbat services had been held just hours earlier in the building, and that there are often people sleeping in the building over Shabbat. If the fire had been a day earlier “that would have been a disaster.”
In 2016, the Chabad House was damaged by Hurricane Hermine.
Oirechman said they are “committed to overcome this tragedy, and with G-d’s help we will yet build a stronger and brighter future out of the ashes.”
Tallahassee’s Temple Israel issued a statement saying “We pray for a shelter of peace over Chabad of Tallahassee as they suffer the terrible loss of their Shul early this morning. While the fire has taken their Torahs, nobody was injured and their strength and support from the community remains.”
Florida State University Hillel also expressed solidarity, and said they are available for any students who need support. As the cause for the fire is not known, out of caution they have asked for increased police patrols for their building, which is closed this week.
The Florida State Jewish Alumni Network said “Now is a time for the entire Tallahassee and FSU Jewish community to rally around Rabbi Oriechman, his family, and his congregation. We offer our full support and assistance.”
University Lutheran Church and Student Center urged its followers to “pray with us for the Chabad of Tallahassee and FSU Jewish community.”
Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, said the news was “Devastating. Let’s lift up the members of this synagogue with prayer. Also, please donate to their relief fund, if you have the means.”
Consul General Maor Elbaz-Starinsky of Israel’s consulate in Miami said he had spoken with Oreichman, and “We’re following it closely and send our prayers to the First Responders and to Rabbi Oirechmann… we’re sure Chabad of Tallahassee will return stronger than ever.”
The donation page for the rebuilding effort and expenses in procuring a temporary facility is here.
Also in Kentucky
This is the second major fire at a Chabad center recently. On April 23, the last day of Passover, the Chabad in Lousville, Ky., was destroyed. A grease fire was reported at a rented home connected to the center at 4:30 a.m., and was extinguished by firefighters, but an additional fire was reported later in the day. Investigators are determining if there were hidden embers still smoldering in a wall or roof after the first fire.
The Louisville building is not being covered by insurance, as it was on leased property. There was a plan to buy the property this coming June 8, after which insurance would have kicked in.
The Torahs had been removed during the first fire, which did not damage the Chabad structure extensively, and Shabbat services were held at the home of Rabbi Avrohom Litvin because of the smoke — but that also kept 75 congregants from being in the Chabad building when the second fire broke out.
Ten days before the fire, Chabad was honored by the state of Kentucky for its extensive charitable efforts in responding to a deadly tornado outbreak in the area on Dec. 10.