Sifting through a pile of charred rubble in yesterday's late afternoon chill, a group of Orthodox Jews momentarily put aside sadness and anger yesterday to perform a sacred duty.
They gathered to sort shaimos, holy objects that include biblical verses and commentary on the Jewish law, for proper disposition -- burial in a Jewish cemetery.
"It's sad enough they was burned," said Mordechai Bamberger, who brought his sons to help recover sacred texts. "The least we can do is give them a proper burial."
The pile of rubble sat next to the two-story brick house in Upper Park Heights that is the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, where a suspicious fire burned early Saturday in a storage room.
Etz Chaim, which for the last 25 years has offered classes and workshops to unaffiliated Jews as an outreach by the Orthodox community, served as a kind of community center -- it also houses a synagogue and a half-dozen other programs.
"Etz Chaim has provided so much learning for so many people for so many years," said Beth Wiseman, holding an industrial-strength garbage bag into which volunteers were depositing the charred remains of books. She has taken many classes at the center. "These books should be the soul of our people. It's what kept the Jewish people going all these years."
Rabbi Shlomo Porter remained undaunted as he supervised the work, examining texts to determine whether they had sacred content. Hundreds of volumes -- prayer books, Bibles, commentaries on Scripture -- still sit on shelves that line the center's walls. Many of them are so damaged by smoke that they, too, will have to be buried.
The center will find temporary quarters, Porter said, and will repair the center.
He held his usual Sunday class, "Torah, One Line at a Time," at a nearby synagogue. As class began, he held up his cellular phone to his students, telling them that, for the time being, "this is the Etz Chaim office."
At the scene of the fire
It was as members of the synagogue, Congregation Avodas Yisroel, were beginning to gather Saturday for morning Sabbath services that someone saw smoke coming from the building shortly before 8 a.m. He summoned a man walking by, who had a cell phone and called the Fire Department.
As firefighters arrived, synagogue members pleaded to be allowed to enter the building and save the precious Torah scroll. Firefighters told them to stay outside, entered the building and retrieved the scroll.
"The Torah scroll, it was smoke-damaged and there may be some long-term damage -- we'll have the scribe take a look at it -- but it was usable," said Tzvi Possick, president of the synagogue. They carried it a couple of blocks to the home of the synagogue's rabbi and used it during services held in his living room.
'A real desecration'
Porter said he was at a bar mitzvah Saturday morning at a nearby congregation when his secretary and his wife came with the bad news.
"We walked here. We went in to see what burned, what the damage was," he said. "My first reaction obviously was shock -- the desecration!
"All these books," he said sadly, looking at the pile of rubble yesterday. "You're not allowed to cry on the Sabbath. So I waited until this morning."
The cause of the fire has not been determined. The city Fire Department, the city police's arson squad and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are investigating, normal procedure for a fire in a religious institution since a rash of church burnings in the South in 1996, said Lt. Michael M. Maybin, a Fire Department spokesman.
Porter said he has plenty of reasons to be suspicious.
On Wednesday morning, staff members called the Fire Department after arriving at the center and finding the burner of a stove in the basement lighted, with papers burning on top of it. On Friday morning, a burner of another stove in the basement was discovered lighted.
"Maybe this was an accident, but it doesn't look that way," Porter said. "My staff said it reminds them of Paris when they burned the Talmud [in the 13th century]," he said. "A holy book is like a life. That's especially if it has God's name in it. So it's a real desecration."