I’m sure you’re aware of the horrific tragedy that took place on March 21 in Brooklyn. Seven children, aged 5 to 16, all from the same family, perished in a fire. The mother and one daughter narrowly escaped.
I stared at photos of the grief-stricken father. I saw images of weeping members of Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and in Jerusalem where the bodies were buried. Even though I couldn’t imagine what they must be feeling, I tried to join them in their grief.
But I couldn’t. My anger kept getting in the way, as it was impossible for me to stop thinking about the fact that this fire—and others like it—could have been prevented.
As I and another author noted in this blog post, the fire started by a malfunctioning hot plate that had been left on overnight, a typical way to keep food warm on the Sabbath. During this time, many Jews believe they’re not permitted to turn electrical appliances on or off or light or extinguish a flame from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. So the solution is to have a hot plate or a device called a blech (a sheet of metal that sits on a stovetop) heat food for many hours and often while members of the household are sleeping. What’s more, there were no smoke detectors on the floor where the fire started or upstairs.
The dangers of keeping to these rituals are well known. Besides the fire hazards, a flame can go out, causing carbon monoxide poisoning. Or, if a room is not well ventilated, a flame can eat up all the oxygen and cause asphyxiation. A blech can burn a person, especially if the metal extends beyond the edge of a stove.
One “Jewish fire prevention” brochure even advocates that families make kitchens “NO GO ZONES” for children and keep an escape ladder in every bedroom on upper floors.
You would think that many observant families would take extra precautions. Some do, but many do not. Many people won’t even discuss fire safety measures and ignore firefighters who are handing out information in their neighborhoods. I’ve come across many Jewish sites that give all the do’s and don’t’s of observing the Sabbath. Not one warned about fire risks or gave instructions on fire safety.
There there are those writing about the tragedy and taking apologist positions. Children of non-Jewish families die in fires, too, they say. Many children die in car accidents. Space heaters in any home is a common cause of fires. Many people have a flame going all night in their water heaters.
There is more discussion going on now in the wake of the Brooklyn fire. But this blindness, complacency, and defensiveness has to stop. Seven children are dead, and they’re not the only ones who have died this way. The March 21 fire was at least the fourth deadly blaze resulting from Sabbath and other holiday observances in Brooklyn in the last fifteen years.
No religious rite is worth risking the health and safety of children. I urge people of the Jewish faith to acknowledge the risks that go with carrying out these practices, to learn about fire safety, and to take all the necessary precautions.
In our blog post, we urge families to use their oven on the “Sabbath” setting (something I recently discovered in oven manuals), crock pots which are designed to keep food warm for a long time without much supervision, and timers to turn appliances on and off.
We also want religious leaders to encourage congregants to ask questions about the safety of their homes and to take protective measures. Rabbis should have fire officials come to synagogues and give talks on fire safety.
Making Sabbath-observant homes safer would be one way to show respect for the children who lost their lives in the Brooklyn fire and others like it.