Mysterious fire hits Michigan State Hillel

DETROIT — Police and fire officials in East Lansing continue to investigate a fire that caused significant damage to the Hillel House at Michigan State University.

Last month, fire officials spent several hours battling an early morning blaze that began in the house's carport and spread to the east wing of the building.

About a dozen students were in Hillel at the time of the fire. All escaped without injury. MSU Hillel is one of the few in the country that houses residents.

Investigating officials put initial damage estimates at $50,000, though Hillel's insurance company has not completed its damage appraisal.

"We have no reason to believe the fire was arson but, at the same time, we will not rule it out," said fire marshal Gary Waterman of the East Lansing Fire Department.

"We have our theories, but at this point it would be unfair to speculate," he said. "The carport is an open structure and anyone could have walked by and either intentionally or unintentionally started a fire."

"I can say that we have ruled out structural problems with the building," Waterman said.

Shortly after the blaze, Hillel residents returned to find minimal structural damage. Several areas of the house, including the East Lansing Jewish Federation office, a guest room and one of the student lounges, remain unusable.

Two days before the fire, Aaron Goldsmith began his new job as the program director for the East Lansing Hillel.

On Aug. 22, he awoke to the fire alarm but dismissed it as a false report — until he saw flames rising from the backyard carport. The fire department arrived shortly after 1 a.m.

In addition to the carport, the blaze destroyed a student's car and two freezers filled with kosher meat.

"We lost program materials, tables, chairs, materials we were storing for our sukkah and some students lost their bikes," Goldsmith said.

Despite the damage, life goes on for MSU's 2,000 Jewish students, some of whom are working to maintain Hillel activities.

"There is a certain level of frustration and vulnerability among the students, but we're moving on," Goldsmith said. "It's an adjustment trying to get around these hurdles, but this doesn't entitle us to let our programming suffer."