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After Fire, Synagogue Cleans Up and Regroups

February 21, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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About a month ago, leaders at Germantown Jewish Centre were focused on routine synagogue tasks, such as planning Shabbat services, and scheduling educational and social programs. Then, within a matter of days, these same leaders were forced to organize an ongoing cleanup and restoration project following a suspicious fire that destroyed a preschool classroom and left other parts of the Mount Airy synagogue smoke-damaged.

The blaze broke out around 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, shortly before school began but before any of the children had arrived. Two teachers were in the building at the time, but managed to escape without injury.

Synagogue leaders are still unsure of the extent of the damage and exactly what repairs need to be done. Executive director Rachel Gross did estimate that "it will take months" before the Conservative shul is back to normal.

Investigators have been able to determine that the fire was arson, but are still attempting to pinpoint its exact cause. They are also trying to determine if there is any connection between the fire and swastikas that were spray-painted on the synagogue's outer walls two weeks earlier. As of Tuesday, the investigation was still ongoing, with no new information available, according to the police, fire, and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials.

Although Shabbat services, minyanim and even some B'nai Mitzvah celebrations have been held in the building since the fire, educational programs have been displaced because synagogue leaders did not want to expose students to the soot.

"Everything's dirty," said Rabbi Leonard D. Gordon in the days following the incident.

Since then, cleaning crews have worked to wash every surface in the building. Early in the effort, congregants showed up with mops and buckets, but were ultimately turned away because the job needed to be done professionally.

Students in the religious school -- 95 children, from kindergarten to high-school age -- are gathering for classes at Project Learn, an independent elementary and middle school in Mount Airy.

The 70 children in the Early-Childhood Program have been separated by age. Children who are 3 and under are now going to Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, while those between 3 and 5 are learning at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

Germantown Jewish Centre is sending teachers and a maintenance staff to all temporary sites.

Gross commended parents for making the best of the difficult situation -- especially immediately after the fire -- when school was closed for 21/2 weeks.

"They set up play dates, trips to museums and the library," she said, noting that many parents are now carpooling to the temporary school sites.

Connie Katz, a congregant of 27 years, said that she's not afraid for her safety and has returned to the building for services since the incident. Investigators promised to keep the synagogue staff aware of any potential risks of coming to work.

"They would let us know if we were in any imminent danger, and I trust their judgment," added Gross, who said that she continues to work out of her normal office inside the building.

Other aspects of synagogue life that have been displaced are the meditation group, which is meeting at P'nai Or Religious Fellowship of Philadelphia, and the choir, which is rehearsing at homes of its members.

The gift shop, where some merchandise was damaged, is closed for the time being.

People have reached out to offer donations or to volunteer in some way -- and not all have been from the Philadelphia area.

For example, a synagogue in Minnesota sent tzedakah money, while a Jewish Community Center in Baltimore had each of its children bring in a $1 donation, which eventually added up to a gift of $120.

"The outpouring has been tremendous," said Gross. "We're deeply moved by it."

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