ARIEL: Passover starts tonight. The week long Jewish holiday celebrates the story of Moses liberating Jewish slaves from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah.
CHARLOTTE: But Midwood, Brooklyn is still reeling after seven children from the Sassoon family were killed in a fire two weeks ago. The fire was caused by a malfunctioning hot plate left on overnight. Observant Jewish families don’t use electronics on the Sabbath, so hot plates and automatic light timers are essential. Anjuli Sastry reports that as the community prepares for Passover, there’s debate about how to put safety first in a way that doesn’t compromise religious practice.
The East Midwood Jewish Center on Ocean Avenue and Avenue J is just a few blocks from where the Sassoon family lived. Passover traditions are underway at the center.
Audrey Korelstein is the center’s director of youth and family education. She’s helping two seventh grade girls light candles for a pre-Seder (Say-der) dinner to celebrate Passover with families a few days early.
Seder Dinner Preparation:
Audrey: “We’re gonna light them tonight, we’re gonna say a prayer, a blessing.” (0:04)
(sound of getting candles ready)
Audrey asks one of the girls to light a match.
Audrey: You allowed to light matches?
Girl 1: Probably but I’ve never done it before.
Audrey: You’ve never lit a match?
Girl 1: No, I’d rather not.
Audrey: Alright, well, I’ll teach you. Just be careful alright.
(sound of lighting match) (0:10)
There’s more concern about fire safety this year. Two weeks ago seven children died in a tragic house fire during the Sabbath.
The dinner tonight is practice before Passover to get the community together. With the loss off the Sassoons still on people’s minds, the theme of this dinner is bereavement, says center Rabbi Matt Carl.
CARL: “It’s around times with holidays that we more acutely aware of who’s not with us anymore.” (0:09)
The recent fire was caused by a faulty hot plate. The Sassoons were modern orthodox and are forbidden from using electricity during the Sabbath. So they used hot plates to keep food warm. But Carl says people have been making way too much about the religious aspect of the hot plate being left on.
CARL: “I noticed that in the newspaper it had said this had been the most deadly fire since the last one was, which was started by a space heater. I remember thinking to myself at the time, well no one says well those so and so people how come they have a space heater?” (0:17)
Still Carl feels a responsibility as a rabbi to teach fire safety.
CARL: “In the orthodox world there tends to be a greater desire to have Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders do things. (0:07)
While Passover preparations take place at Carl’s synagogue, Red Cross volunteers are going door-to-door with the fire department installing smoke detectors. Volunteer Ashley DeLuca says she was shocked when one family didn’t have any of them.
DeLuca: They had 5 children and besides their basement, they had 3 floors in their house. So they had a lot of space and a lot of things to worry about and they actually didn’t have any smoke alarms at all. (0:14)
BROWN: I changed my smoke detector battery two nights ago as soon as I heard the beep go. (0:05)
That’s Midwood resident Joel (JEW-WELL) Brown. She’s taking extra precautions with Passover coming up.
BROWN: I use hot plates and I will not be using them overnight. (0:03)
Brown knew the Sassoon family. She drove one of their boys home from school with her own children in February. As soon as she heard about the tragedy, she went over fire safety with her own kids.
BROWN: They know the fire safety protocol, we have a porch, and the porches connect to other houses. They know god forbid if there’s a fire to run out to the porch and skip over the gates to the next houses. (0:12)
Far from Midwood on the Upper West Side, Rabbi Moshe (MO-SHEH) Grussgot (Gruss-GO) of the Congregation Ramath Orah (RA-MAHT OAR-AH) also has fire safety on his mind. Bread traditionally isn’t eaten on Passover and is burned by families. But Grussgot sent an email recommending members not burn bread.
GRUSSGOT: “It’s a nice traditional custom to burn it. But that’s symbolic. So if it’s gonna be unsafe or if it’s gonna be illegal to start a fire where you are, it’s much better to just throw it in the garbage.” (0:08)
Whether it’s during the Sabbath or not, the fire has brought awareness for Grussgot.
GRUSSGOT: “It’s a time to confess sin, I did not have batteries in my smoke detector before this happened. You know, it was kind of hanging awkwardly off my ceiling like detached from the last time I changed the battery a few months ago. And this inspired me like OK, I better change the batteries. I mean little things like that, if it inspired other people, it’s save lives.” (0:16)
Passover begins at sundown. Anjuli Sastry, Columbia Radio News.