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Congregant rescues scrolls from synagogue blaze

Unholy blaze: A fire ripped through a Sea Gate synagogue during the week of Passover on April 13.
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Talk about chutzpah!

A congregant of a Sea Gate synagogue heroically dashed into a raging fire to rescue the Torah as the house of worship was gutted by flames on April 13. The act was a clear mitzva, said the brave devotee.

“The Torahs had to be saved. That’s the bottom line,” said Howie Londner, who has been a congregant at the synagogue for years. “All we got out were the scrolls, but that was the most important thing — that’s what keeps us going.”

The blaze ignited the Congregation Kneses Israel of Sea Gate on Nautilus Avenue just after midnight and ripped through the shul’s roof during the holy week of Passover, according to a fire department spokesman.

Rabbi Chaim Brikman arrived on the scene shortly after the fire started and barreled into the synagogue for the Sifrei Torah, but the last of the eight scrolls was stowed away in a safe. And by the time Londner made it over with the combination, the house of worship was engulfed in thick, black smoke, he said. But that didn’t stop him from braving the flames to save the last sacred scroll.

“It was black — I couldn’t see two feet in front of me — but I know the shul, so I was able to make my way through,” said Londner. “I didn’t think about it. I just ran in.”

It took Londner ten tries to open the safe as charred wooden beams and hunks of the ceiling came crashing down around him. But he made it out relatively unscathed, though he was treated at Coney Island Hospital for smoke inhalation.

But to hear Londner tell it, he’s not the hero of the story.

“Listen, God protected me,” he said. “When I came out, people were crying hysterically, and I said, ‘It wasn’t that bad.’ ”

Londner is a devout regular at the shul now, but it wasn’t always that way. He had strayed from the flock for a time, but after an accident, Rabbi Brikman stopped by to check up on Londner in the hospital. It was a touching moment that pushed him to become an active congregant.

“They’re very good people,” he said. “This is a shul for everybody.”

Rescuing the scrolls was a big win, but the real battle will be rebuilding. The congregation has already made plans to temporarily meet at the Rabbi’s house and another building near the charred house of worship.

“We made it through Sandy — we were praying with no light and heat for weeks,” Londner said. “We’ll need help, and then of course we pray to god and hope we could rebuild.”

It was unclear what started the blaze. A fire department investigation is ongoing, officials said.

To help the shul rebuild, you can donate to the synagogue’s Matchathon page at https://matchathon.com/matchathon?campaign_id=351

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at cspivack@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2523. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.

Updated 12:21 pm, April 17, 2017
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