Respecting the victims of the Brooklyn fire: Make Sabbath-observant homes safer

Respecting the victims of the Brooklyn fire: Make Sabbath-observant homes safer
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The father of the seven Sassoon children mourns the loss at funeral services in Jerusalem.


We were all gripped by the horrific tragedy that took place on March 21 when seven children of the Sassoon family, aged 5 to 16, perished in a fire in Brooklyn. The mother and a 15-year-old daughter barely managed to escape. To make matters worse—as if they could be worse—the children’s deaths likely could have been prevented.

Fire officials determined that the fire was set by an electric hot plate that malfunctioned after having been left on overnight. There were no smoke detectors on the first floor where the fire started or the second where the family slept.

250px-Blech

A blech keeps food warm throughout the Sabbath.

The Sassoons were Orthodox Jewish, and, like many other Jews who observe the Sabbath, they complied with rules that prohibit the cooking of food from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Food may be kept warm, as long as electrical appliances are not turned on or off or a flame is not kindled or extinguished during the Sabbath. (A flame is used under a blech, a metal sheet that covers the stove top.)

HAZARDS POSED BY RELIGIOUS RITUALS

It’s not the first time that children and adults in Brooklyn—a home to many Orthodox Jews—have been killed or injured in homes in which heating devices were left on during observance of holy days. In fact, it was at least the fourth deadly blaze in the borough resulting from Sabbath and holiday observance in the last fifteen years.

In 2010, an 8-year-old boy was killed and five other children were seriously injured after a fire broke out just a few blocks from where the Sassoon children died. There, too, officials blamed a malfunctioning hot plate that had been left on during the festival of Sukkot. In 2005, three boys died and ten people were injured in an apartment fire that was ignited by stovetop burners left on throughout the night during Passover.

The dangers of leaving a heating appliance on or a flame burning unattended for a long period of time are well known. Hot plates—especially if they are old, the wiring in a building is out of compliance, or an extension cord is used—can start a fire. If smoke alarms aren’t installed or working, a family may not find out that a fire has been ignited until it’s too late.

Gas flames on a stovetop (often used under a blech) pose other hazards. If a flame accidentally goes out and no one notices, it can cause carbon monoxide poisoning or an explosion. If there is not proper ventilation in a room, the flame can use up all oxygen leading to asphyxiation. Blechs can burn people, especially if the metal extends over the edges of the stove.

One fire department brochure on “Jewish Fire Prevention” goes so far as to instruct families to designate kitchens as “NO GO ZONES” for children and to keep a fire escape ladder in every bedroom above the first floor. In an Op-Ed in the Jewish Link of New Jersey, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot warned against using a blech:

I have always been wary of the potential for fire hazards and the buildup of carbon monoxide associated with leaving an open flame on for the entire 25 hours of Shabbat. I believe that most burns and fire incidents on Shabbat during an average year (though not this most recent tragedy) occur in homes where a blech was in use.

RENEWED ATTENTION AND DISCUSSION

On the positive side, the tragedy has led to increased awareness and discussion about fire safety within the Jewish community. Fire safety have become a big topic in Facebook discussions. There was a run on smoke detectors in New York City soon after news broke about the Brooklyn fire. Some Jews have been debating over which heating method is safer, a hot plate or a blech.

One observant mother recently wrote in Britain’s Jewish News how her family came close to suffering the same fate of the Sassoon family. She wrote that, one night, she crept downstairs after smelling something funny. When she opened the kitchen door, she saw plumes of smoke.

I remember charging forward like a woman possessed, and realising that orangey flames were shooting from beneath the Shabbat hotplate, which we’d plugged in and left on the worktop before Shabbat came in, as we did every week.

She extinguished the flames with wet towels, noting that the hot plate had been placed “on a flimsy kitchen surface.” After the fire incident, the woman purchased a proper tray for their hot plate, installed smoke detectors on every floor, and used timers so that appliances weren’t on for the full duration of Shabbat. “As I prepare for Pesach,” she wrote, “I shall take a moment to stop and think: ‘Have I done all I can to make this holiday safe and enjoyable for all my family and guests?'”

However, some Jews have taken an apologist position when commenting about the Brooklyn fire. We have read numerous articles written by rabbis who point to the fact that children also die in fires in non-Jewish homes. J.J. Goldberg, a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward and who wrote about the Brooklyn fire and similar tragedies was criticized by readers for failing to bring up the fact that children also die in car accidents.

We perused a half dozen Jewish websites that stipulate how to prepare and heat food for the Sabbath; none warned about the potential dangers or offered fire safety instruction.

Fire officials set up an information table in Brooklyn to teach residents about fire safety. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

Fire officials set up an information table in Brooklyn to teach residents about fire safety. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

No one should minimize the dangers of these practices, no matter how important they are to the Jewish community. To do so shows disrespect for the children and others who have suffered when safety precautions were not taken seriously. Instead, we should do all we can to educate people about fire safety and the importance of discussing it.

TAKING PRECAUTIONS

Here are some fire safety precautions that observant Jewish families should take:

  • Smoke alarms should be placed on every floor and in all bedrooms. They should be tested monthly and batteries should be changed once a year even if the old ones still work.
  • If a flame is to be used overnight, a carbon monoxide detector should be installed.
  • Electrical heating appliances should not be used in buildings whose wiring is not up to code.
  • All heating appliances should be UL-certified and should not be used if their cords are damaged in any way.
  • Appliances should be plugged directly into the wall; no extension cords should be used.
  • Appliances should be placed in an open area on a solid, flame-resistant counter (not on a stove) and away from cabinets, drapes, and other objects.
  • Appliances should be plugged into GFCI plugs to prevent electric shocks.
    Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) plug

    Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) plug

Families should also look at alternative methods of heating food other than a hot plate or blech. For example, a crock pot is designed to warm food for long periods of time without being watched. In addition, most ovens today have a “Sabbath” setting, which allows for food to be safely heated for many hours. Timers can be used to turn appliances on and off. Of course, the safest alternative is to simply not heat food at all.

Religious leaders must also do their part. Rabbis should address fire safety in sermons and encourage their congregations to learn and talk about it. They should invite fire officials to talk to come and give talks at synagogues and encourage apartment and home owners to have fire officials inspect their homes and give advice on how to make them safer.

The deaths of the Sassoon children have caused great sorrow within the Jewish community and around the world. We owe it to the victims of that tragedy to come together and learn how to observe religious holidays in ways that pose no risk to the safety of children and their families.

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason is the spiritual leader of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, an orthodox congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, and President of the Child-Friendly Faith Project. Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the founder, board member, and Executive Director of the CFFP.

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