By Eli Verschleiser
According to the 2012 New York Jewish Population study, 32 percent of the New York area’s 1.54 million Jews–or some 492,800 people–identify as Orthodox.
That means that in tens of thousands of homes, perhaps more than 100,000 in the New York area alone, observance of Shabbat and major holidays means candles-burning and likely some kind of cooking or heating device in use for a prolonged period of time.
In response to the horrifying deaths of seven children in a cooking-related Friday-night fire in Brooklyn, a former Fire Department of New York lieutenant tells the Wall Street Journal he saw “four or five” hot-plate-related fires leading to death (not necessarily in Jewish homes) in the course of a 42-year career.
“A deadly plague of Shabbat fires,” blares a headline in The Forward, which mentions four fires in 15 years, which killed 11 people, tied to such cooking devices.
The New York Times warns that the “Sabbath routine [of extended food warming is] a risky practice,” according to officials.
Make no mistake: There is absolutely no acceptable number of fire deaths, no percentage of collateral damage to justify any risky behavior. Every possible aggressive effort should be made to reduce accidental deaths of all kinds to zero.
The Sassoon family devastated by the Brooklyn fire came from Israel, where smoke alarms are not as widely encouraged or used. That may be why they didn’t think to install them in their home.
A campaign to maximize home safety is welcome and necessary.
But for some, the tragedy offers an opportunity to reinforce a narrative that Orthodox Jews are somewhat backward and reckless, placing too much faith in Gâ€‘d to protect them from themselves, obsessing too much over Torah study at the expense of real-world lessons.
This is a patently offensive takeaway.
Between 2007 and 2011, cooking equipment was the number-one cause of home fires in the U.S., amounting to 43 percent of blazes, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. Those figures will surely include people who left the oven unattended, left food on the stove, kept flammable material too close, or used defective equipment. Given this volume, and the small Jewish population, observant Jews cannot be considered any more prone to such accidents than others, and statistically are very likely responsible for far fewer per capita. Any truly observant Jew knows that preserving life and limb trumps any other day-to-day religious practice.
Would critics consider the practices of Sabbath-observant Jews acceptable only with a zero incident rate? That’s a standard not applied to any other group, including skiers, subway riders, airline passengers, or motorists, all of whom, sadly, encounter fatal mishaps regularly.
An electric hot plate is generally intended to be used for extended periods, and each one sold must be approved for safety. Other devices routinely approved and sold, but known to cause fires, include TVs, toasters, dryers, dehumidifiers, and, lately, electronic-cigarette chargers.
It is the responsibility of every person who uses these devices to use them responsibly, in accordance with user manuals, and to make sure they are maintained in safe operating condition. But mishaps are a sad part of life.
It compounds these tragedies when people heartlessly suggest, even before all the facts are out, that victims are somehow to blame for their fate. People with too much time on their hands reveal their true agenda when they try to stigmatize religious people who perish under these circumstances.
Would they blame Christmas for a blaze that started from faulty wiring on a tree? Or patriotism for a fireworks display or barbecue gone awry on July Fourth?
It’s natural for human beings to want to attach a greater meaning to a tragedy so that it seems less likely to happen to them. It’s also natural for journalists to seek out the “trend story” to take the coverage beyond the initial reportage.
But what if this incident instead allowed for a deeper understanding of what Shabbat actually brings to the world? Thousands fewer cars on the road, reducing pollution and accidents. Less crowding in stores and on public transportation. And stronger, more functional families.
For those who accept this blessing in their lives, it’s a time of refocusing. In a universe where we are always connected, reachable, and on the move, Shabbat offers relief from it all, a day to share and be with family. It’s a day that we have long, sit-down meals together, where we are at peace with all that is around us.
Even in the darkest of tragedies, some light can be found. Better education about fire safety to preserve life can be one source. So could an opportunity for better understanding, rather than a rush to quick and often ugly judgments.Â v
Eli Verschleiser is a financier, real-estate developer, and investor in commercial real estate. He is also a board member of the American Jewish Congress, co-founder of Magenu.org, and president of OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth.