Rabbi Mendel Weinfeld surveys the damage at the Chabad House in south San Jose, Dec. 2021. (Photo/Emma Goss)
Rabbi Mendel Weinfeld surveys the damage at the Chabad House in south San Jose, Dec. 2021. (Photo/Emma Goss)

Fire destroys new Chabad synagogue in San Jose, spares Torahs

Just four months after its grand opening, the Chabad House in south San Jose has gone up in flames.

The San Jose Fire Department responded just before 7 a.m Wednesday to reports of smoke coming from the roof of the two-story Chabad House-Almaden Valley synagogue on Branham Lane. The fire was under control by 9:44 a.m. according to SJFD. By then, every room of the building, including the attic space, was scorched.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation; San Jose police have determined the fire was neither a hate crime nor racially motivated, according to a tweet from its media relations department.

“The community is all in shock,” said Rabbi Mendel Weinfeld, who leads the Orthodox Jewish synagogue with his wife, Mussie. The young couple arrived from New York to launch their Chabad outreach efforts in January 2020, holding events in their home and rented spaces while raising money for a permanent center.

In late August 2021, just before Rosh Hashanah, they began using the brand-new building for prayer, Hebrew school, and social events. The renovations were mostly complete, Weinfeld said, though — ironically — fire alarms had yet to be installed.

Walking through the damaged building Thursday morning, Weinfeld pointed to the flooring in the main social hall and sanctuary, the white marble now broken, with a gaping hole in the floor just feet from the ark. Stacks of prayerbooks, their pages scorched, are piled on a table. They will be buried, Weinfeld said, as is the practice with desecrated holy books.

The damage to the Chabad House is extensive.
The damage to the Chabad House is extensive.

Fortunately, the congregation’s Torah scrolls survived unscathed.

“The Torahs have a terrible smell on them, but they’ll recover,” Weinfeld said, crediting a Chabad community member, Jacob Cohen, for rushing to the parking lot of the burning synagogue and alerting firefighters that the Torah scrolls were in need of rescue.

“Thank God that was saved. And thank God there was nobody in the building,” Weinfeld said.

Security camera footage shows an unsheltered man at the entrance of the synagogue around 1:30 Wednesday morning. Weinfeld suspects he ignited a fire to try to keep warm on a cold, rainy morning.

“I feel bad for the homeless man that just by mistake burnt down the synagogue,” he said.

A GoFundMe page created by a community member to support the Chabad House has brought in more than $43,000 as of noon Thursday. The goal is to raise $250,000.

“It’s beautiful to see how many people in the community are getting together and giving. And we appreciate that very much,” Weinfeld said, adding that anyone looking to support the synagogue might consider doing a mitzvah, such as placing a mezuzah on their front doorpost.

“It’s shocking to see a synagogue in flames,” Weinfeld said. “And we’ve got to react. And our reaction is that we’ll do more, we’ll do another mitzvah. We’ll do something more to make this world a little brighter.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.