Photo Credit: courtesy, Rabbi Mendy Weinfeld
Fire damage to the San Jose Chabad House / synagogue.

A San Jose Jewish community is looking for answers after their synagogue / Chabad House burned down last week — and as if that were not enough, the structure was then broken into and vandalized a few days later, on Saturday.

A garbage collector called 911 when he saw flames licking the outside walls of the newly constructed Chabad House, during his rounds in the San Jose, California neighborhood at 7 am last Wednesday morning.


Community members and a neighborhood hero rushed in to help, calling the fire services, rescuing holy objects, and initiating a rebuilding campaign. Fire trucks and emergency services quickly arrived at the scene and fought valiantly to bring the blaze under control.

By the time the fire was extinguished, however, it was clear there had been irreparable damage to the structure; the flames had raged through the sanctuary and the on-site Hebrew School classrooms.

Surveillance footage showed that the fire was set by someone in the carport area under the building at about 2 am.

An investigation is ongoing.

Jacob Cohen, a community member, rushed to the scene when he heard from a colleague that his synagogue was on fire.

Faced with clouds of thick smoke and firefighters battling flames, Cohen quickly explained to the nearest firefighter the significance of the Torahs and other holy objects, and asked the firefighter to check on their status.

The firefighter “could not make any promises, but he risked his safety to re-enter an unstable building and was able to bring out the two Torahs and a drawer with the Talits and Tefillin,” Cohen related.

For the fledgling Jewish community the fire was a devastating blow. Rabbi Mendel and Mussi Weinfeld, emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, had arrived in San Jose just two years prior to establish a new Jewish community.

The young couple had just completed renovations on the new Chabad House in August, in time for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

“Flames and ashes may try to throw shade on our light, but the fire of Jewish life burns brighter and will last longer than any of its adversaries,” Rabbi Mendel told in an email.

“Let’s add in light, let’s add in acts of goodness and kindness that will surely make the world a better place and bring the messiah”.

Community members were quick to come together to support the rebuilding efforts. (A GoFundMe campaign set up by community member Maryann Barsky has already raised $100,000 toward the $250,000 goal.)

Jacob Cohen said he was not surprised at the outpouring of support, noting that more than 1,500 community members showed up to a recent Hanukkah event at Santana Row. Cohen said he had seen people stop outside the center and point out the menorah to their kids.

“There are people who wouldn’t usually show up at a synagogue, but at Chabad they’ll bring their kids to a holiday event. The Chabad House is a vital link in their relationship to Judaism and the community.”


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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for, and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.