As Passover was coming to a close, two fires devastated a Louisville Jewish center that was a place for worship and Judaic studies.
The building itself, especially the shul in the back where congregants would gather to worship, was gutted and the windows in the rear were blown out. While people had been in the building at the time of the first fire, everyone got out safely.
Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, regional director of Chabad of Kentucky, returned to the site Sunday morning to survey the damage. It still smelled of smoke.
Litvin said members of the Chabad were able to rescue the three Torah scrolls, and he’s grateful no one was injured. But he said it’s also heartbreaking to see their building like this.
“It tears my heart to see the destruction here and the burnt prayer shawl and the burnt prayer books, the word of G-d and the Bible, the Old Testament destroyed in many cases, the entire structure burned to the ground, tables that we prayed on and had community events in,” he said. “It’s all very sad.”
As he spoke, Litvin was surrounded by stacks of damaged religious books.
“A book is considered to be a living word of G-d, and as such, if it’s been destroyed, it needs to be buried,” he said. “We’re kind of trying to figure out now what’s been damaged by water, what’s been damaged by fire, and what can be salvaged.”
There were actually two fires at the Chabad of Kentucky on Saturday, according to St. Matthews Fire Protection District public information officer Rick Tonini.
Tonini said the first call came in around 4 a.m. Saturday.
Fire crews responded and put out the fire, which appeared to have started in the kitchen. The structure was a house with an addition to include worship areas. And Tonini said the crews stayed on site for several hours to “make sure that all of the hotspots and areas that could cause a fire to start again… wouldn’t rekindle.”
Sometime in the afternoon, Tonini continued, the fire department received a call about a second fire at the Chabad. He said the earlier crews were busy with a fire at another location, so they dispatched several other Metro fire teams.
When crews arrived at the Chabad, the second fire “was out of control.”
“Heavy fire, heavy smoke, the fire was already through the roof and smoke was rolling from the property,” Tonini said.
Because there were two fires within less than 12 hours, with one being so large and the sources unknown, Tonini said they called in investigators from the Louisville Metro Fire Department.
Tonini said that it’s standard to bring in investigators, and that’s not necessarily an indication of suspected foul play.
A Louisville Metro Fire Department spokesperson told WFPL News the investigation is ongoing and they have yet to determine a cause.
Rabbi Chaim Litvin, one of the Chabad’s program directors, lives around the corner and got a call about the fire early Saturday morning. He said he rushed over to make sure the people who were living on the property were safe. His next instinct was to find the Torah scrolls — one of which had survived the Holocaust and was brought to the U.S. after the war.
He said he retrieved them from the building before the second fire.
“It’s tough to see,” he said. “I built this building with my own hands. I laid the floor.”
Rabbi Avrohom Litvin said it feels a little surreal to be looking at the ruins of the Chabad. Only a few months ago, the congregation was able to send aid to western Kentucky communities affected by deadly tornadoes.
Now, “we’re the ones in need.”
But he has faith they’ll also rebuild, even if the how and when are unclear.
“Our plans are still unknown,” he said. “The future is complicated. Right now we’re looking at destruction and devastation. But we are committed to coming back for the community, being there for others when they are in need.”