‘The Fire Killed The Entire Community’


Satmar chasidim make a pilgrimage to Williamsburg every Shavuot to celebrate the holiday with their rebbe, Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum.

This week, unexpectedly, they also mourned with him.

The rebbe’s brick house in the Brooklyn neighborhood, down the street from the main Satmar synagogue, was a shiva house following the deaths in a two-alarm fire of his granddaughter, Sarah Blima Halberstam, 20, and her 5-month-old daughter, Chaya Esther.

Mrs. Halberstam, a teacher in a Satmar school in Montreal, had come to Williamsburg for Shavuot and was staying in a relative’s duplex, which was gutted in a blaze early Friday morning, the first day of the holiday.

A stream of visitors, including Satmars from Israel and Europe, made consolation calls this week during the shiva period, which began after Shabbat, the last day of Shavuot.

Police barricades marked the entrance to the apartment building, part of a housing complex used by faculty of the Satmars’ United Talmudic Academy, and a hand-lettered notice in Yiddish on the front door of the main synagogue announced the mourning in the rebbe’s house. In the close-knit chasidic community, the tragedy was evident on people’s faces.

"People are going around in a trance," said Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a Satmar spokesman. "The spirit of yom tov was completely shattered. This was the topic of conversation at the [holiday] tables, in the shuls: in all of Brooklyn."

In Williamsburg, the chasidim referred to the tragedy simply as "the fire." The Bible’s King David and the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chasidic movement, also died on Shavuot, they pointed out.

A spokesman for Rabbi Teitelbaum’s family could not be reached.

"The mood: indescribable. Almost like everyone lost his daughter," said Isaac Abraham, a Williamsburg resident who also serves as a Satmar spokesman. "The fire killed the entire community, the spirit, the joy."

The fire in the kitchen of the apartment apparently was set off by a row of holiday candles, according to Fire Department officials. An investigation is continuing.

Three other women, including Rabbi Teitelbaum’s 80-year-old wife, and four children in the apartment escaped. Mrs. Halberstam, her daughter cradled in her arms, was found a few feet from the fire escape. Her husband, Rabbi Joel Halberstam, was in synagogue several blocks away, taking part in the traditional all-night recital of Psalms and prayers.

"People heard the alarms, the cries and yelling," Rabbi Frankel said. "The news spread like wildfire."

Rabbi Teitelbaum, 83, was not informed of his relatives’ death until early Friday afternoon, following Shacharit services. He chanted Hallel, the joyous collection of Psalms read on major holidays, during the morning service, as is his custom. After learning of the tragedy, he briefly walked with the funeral procession at the rear of the synagogue, escorting the minivan that bore the pair of black-draped, wooden coffins. Because the funeral took place on Shavuot, the vehicle was driven by a non-Jew to the burial before the start of Shabbat in the Orange County village of Kiryas Joel (see sidebar).

Some 25,000 members of the Williamsburg community attended the funeral ceremony in Williamsburg.

The Satmar community in Kiryas Joel learned about the fire from the chevra kadisha burial society, which had been informed by local police. More than 15,000 people ("almost anybody who has legs," Abraham said) went to the burial. Mrs. Halberstam and her daughter were buried a few yards from the mausoleum of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the late Satmar rebbe for whom Kiryas Joel is named.

Jewish funerals ordinarily are not conducted on yom tov, but halachic authorities determined it was permissible in this case to prevent a delay until Sunday, Abraham said.

Injuries caused by Shabbat and yom tov candles were a frequent occurrence in local religious households in the 1980s, raising concern in hospital emergency rooms, but a public safety campaign conducted a decade ago by the Hatzoloh ambulance service has greatly reduced the figure, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

"Thank God, we haven’t seen a death in my memory," Pollock said.

In the wake of the fire, JCRC may support a similar campaign, he said. "It could be time do to something again."