A terrible tragedy devastated a Kew Gardens Hills institution this past Thursday afternoon, Erev Rosh Chodesh Av. Congregation Bais Yosef D’Ulem, under the leadership of Rav and Rebbetzin Yaakov Yitzchak Friedman, the Ulemer Rav, suffered a blaze that destroyed the beis midrash and rendered the esteemed couple’s home uninhabitable.
For over 40 years, the shul at the corner of 141st Street and 72nd Road has hummed with the voice of Torah and t’filah till late in the day. “Baruch Hashem, we are happy to be alive,” related Rav Friedman, standing beside his Rebbetzin with his eyes peering at the damage to his shul and home this past Tuesday afternoon. I was part of a small team that brought the shul’s chairs and tables to the next-door backyard as demolition plans were being developed. I was informed that the Rav exclaimed a similar statement when he arrived at the scene on Thursday.
“Rabbi Friedman’s Shul,” as the makom t’filah is affectionately known, is widely known as Queens’ Shacharis answer to Cong. Shomrei Shabbos Anshei Sfard of Boro Park. Congregants landing at an area airport can rest assured that they will have a Shacharis minyan available, regardless of the hour. The vibrant facility recently underwent an expansion that included an enlargement to the basement and private mikvah for the Rav, and it welcomes Orthodox Jews from every walk of life. The Rav and his k’hilah are the embodiment of Ki veisi beis t’filah yikarei l’chol ha’amim, always being accessible to any Jew in need.
“It goes without saying that Rabbi Friedman’s Shul is a focal point of the Kew Gardens Hills community, as it provides a service like no other in the area,” said longtime shul member Bernie Shafran. “While most shul schedules are limited, anyone and everyone is comfortable dropping in for a Shacharis minyan at Bais Yosef D’Ulem often until midday.” Bernie gave the Rav the title of a “true tzadik” for his graciousness of welcoming Yidden irrespective of their backgrounds.
“The day was very emotional,” explained Adam Sokol, a member at Bais Yosef D’Ulem for over two decades. “As I saw our shul go up in flames, I was immediately reminded of the upcoming fast of Tish’ah B’Av and how this devastating fire was not the best entrance for The Nine Days. But, as often is the case in Jewish culture, good emerges from the bad. Yes, of course we are deeply saddened, but we are ten times more gladdened by the prospect of rebuilding our shul and the home of the Rav and Rebbetzin.”
As the fire raged, Adam became the liaison between the fire chief and the community. First, he, alongside the growing team of volunteers, ascertained that the synagogue and residence were void of people. Meanwhile, Adam placed the necessary phone calls to obtain the code to the aron kodesh, a fireproof safe that did its job of keeping the sifrei Torah intact without the acrid smell of smoke or residue from the inferno. Once allowed inside, Adam passed the sacred scrolls to prearranged volunteers, which included members from our community’s host of chesed organizations, including Chaverim of Queens and Great Neck, Hatzolah of Queens and Great Neck, Misaskim of Queens, and Queens Borough Safety Patrol – Shmira.
In the aftermath of the fire, Adam remarked, “The Rav’s talis bag, which was mere inches from the source of the blaze, suffered just a sprinkling of water, and the Rav’s talis and t’filin remained unscathed. These are the wonders of Hashem.”
Daniel Kronengold, a resident of the Upper West Side who regularly spends Shabbos in the Bronx at the Young Israel of Bay Chester (COOP City), was privileged to be part of the final Shacharis that day. Following the advice of a community member, Daniel attended the 12:30 p.m. minyan, his second time in the shul. Daniel arrived for k’rias haTorah and was zocheh to have enough people stay for him to recite a heicha k’dushah. Daniel recalled a memorable conversation afterwards with Avraham Kaufman, a Sephardic man who leads a shiur, and offered him a brachah for a shidduch. “I work in a Queens government office and found the shul as a resource for a minyan. This was my first time being able to daven with a minyan there, and one I will never forget.”
Eli Glaser, a founding member who now has his son and grandson counted amongst the shul’s members, had nothing but sweet words for the Friedmans. “We are known as the shul that welcomes with open arms because of our Rav and Rebbetzin who are there for everyone. They love the community, and the past few days has shown how the community loves back.” Eli explained how the Rav lives a life completely dedicated to Hashem and His Torah and is far removed from the nuances of a smartphone and the concept of texting. Many of us found out about the heartbreaking fire and shared the donation link on these devices. “It is our fervent prayer to be back on our feet full force, bigger and better.”
Inga and Jay Barsky live just across the street from the shul and their home is currently being used to store the sifrei Torah. It was their son Noach who encountered the first glimpse of a fire alongside Zevulun Yakubov who had called emergency services.
“It was 2 p.m., a normal day, and I was headed out to Wasserman for sushi,” said Noach. “I saw two individuals overlooking the rabbi’s home and I crossed the street to inquire further. We noticed smoke coming from the chimney, which was soon followed by orange fumes. I extracted my mobile device, only to find that it was dead. Luckily, Zevie had a powered-up device. We began to pound on the house door and concluded that nobody was home.”
What followed was simply heartrending and led to a chaotic scene of commotion and panic that lasted well into the evening hours. “As the fire department approached, one could notice the shul windows fogging up to complete darkness, and soon people start emerging from their homes as emergency vehicles filled the streets,” stated Noach. “Suddenly flames shot up and windows began to pop. The firefighters then began to get into gear as others surveyed the scene. Soon, the ladders came out and we watched as the firemen used axes to break through the doors and windows of the Friedman home. It is adequate to state that pandemonium ensued.
The volunteers began to increase, many of whom had the sifrei Torah and s’farim on their minds, but of course we needed an all clear to enter the shul. Moreover, we needed leadership.” Noach detailed the spate of love from neighbors and those nearby brought out water bottles, and how local stores chipped in. Seasons and Wasserman offered whatever was needed, and Benjy’s Pizzeria, owned by a neighbor, sent over pies for the crew. For one, Seasons boxes now store the bulk of the s’farim waiting for their next chance to be opened. Tables were arranged for t’filin, “talleisim,” and s’farim. An area was dedicated for tables and chairs, and so on.
“The way the community came together, from small to big tasks, was commendable. I was especially taken by the women who comforted the Rebbetzin, and the guys who handled with care the items of value from the Friedman home, including frozen foods.”
Noach’s twin Shlomo, a graduate of Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun, who is set to begin a z’man in Eretz Yisrael at Rabbi Senter’s, detailed how passing cars stopped on the side of the road to jump and help how best they can. People even made donations right then and there to help in the recovery. There was no Sefardim or Ashkenazim. We were a wonderful, united, connected community. Even unaffiliated kids assisted in the efforts. Noach, who will be attending Mercaz HaTorah in Israel, also noted that the Rav’s gemara and a large siddur from the amud remained unharmed.
Eli Glaser also spoke of the calls and texts he has received from former members who now reside throughout the United States. “Friends who have not lived in Kew Gardens Hills for ten or 20 years reached out for information on how to support the rebuilding or assist the Rav and Rebbetzin. This is only possible due to vast impact that the extended Friedman family has had on those they have encountered.”
Appreciation is extended to those who have been involved in recovery efforts, including Ari Elbogen who took the lead on the day of the fire and solicited the assistance of Yaakov Stern, Moshe Altusky, Zisha Barth, Nechemia Hoch, Mutty Kaminetzky, and the elected officials who have expressed their concern and offered the k’hilah guidance and assistance through this journey.
Current Shacharis minyanim for those who have no other options are being held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sruly Glaser at 7, 8, 9, and 10 a.m., 139-03 72nd Road, side entrance / basement. At 72-36 136th Street on the corner of 73rd Terrace and 136th Street there will be an additional 9 and 10 a.m. minyan.
A rebuild and recover campaign has since garnered nearly $125,000, well on the way to its $750,000 goal. “Everyone involved has been deeply moved by the outpouring of support and love,” noted Mr. Shafran. “As we embark on this difficult proposition and turn to others from the community and beyond for support to keep us going, we are warmed by the response that is indicative of our community’s beautiful blend of different kinds of Jews.”