Lilly Abadi tilted her head down. Her teary eyes gazed at her clasped hands, which were resting on her lap. She nodded her head and mumbled affirming words to almost every statement of comfort that the two rabbis spoke.
Before the speeches began, Abadi walked through the sanctuary collecting tzadaka—charity—for another family in need. An older woman, she weaved through the crowd of young girls, mothers, and grandmothers. The men sat on the other side of the sanctuary, partially hidden by a mechitza, or partition.
Abadi was one of a few hundred community members at Congregation Shaare Zion in Brooklyn on Wednesday night for an event called “An Evening of Hizzuk,” or strength. The community gathered in the Sephardic synagogue’s impressive circular sanctuary, where Rabbi Shlomo Diamond and Rabbi Meyer Yedid spoke to a community trying to cope with the tragic loss of seven children from a fire on Saturday, March 21.
The fire, which resulted in the city’s largest death toll since 2007, originated from a hot plate. During the Sabbath, religious Jews refrain from switching electricity on or off, so most families turn on a hot plate before sundown on Friday to keep the food warm. The hotplate malfunctioned and started a fire in the two-floor Bedford Avenue home in Midwood. The mother, Gayle Sassoon, 45, and her daughter Siporah, 15, were the only family members to make it out of the fire alive. Her husband was out of town on business.
Almost a week later the community continues to mourn and question how something like this could happen to such innocent children. For a religious community, turning to faith and God for answers is a necessity. Rabbi Diamond, sitting on the platform in the front of the sanctuary, told the gathering that the tragedy was “a wakeup call for the community.
“Nothing happens by accident,” he said. “Everything is in God’s hands.”
Diamond reassured the packed synagogue that the children did not die in vain, or as a means of punishing them for wrongdoing. “Why them? I don’t know,” he said. But Diamond said that a tragedy like this happens so a community can cleanse itself of sins—to reevaluate their wrongdoings and improve themselves as Jews. “God brings tragedies to good people as an atonement for all the defects and sins we have done before now,” he said.
Diamond and Yedid encouraged the community to cope with the loss by being better, by improving themselves. “It’s not enough to cry,” Yedid said. “The crying must lead to action.” Yedid encouraged each member of the community to commit to improving at least one aspect of their spiritual lives—whether it be refraining from gossip, or keeping Kosher, or keeping the Sabbath, or learning more Torah. After the event, a group of girls stood outside the sanctuary doors and handed attendees flyers with suggestions on small steps to becoming holier people.
“There is a lot of good in this community. I love being part of this community. There is so much love in this community,” Yedid said. “But that doesn’t mean everything is how it’s supposed to be.”
Diamond reminded the attendees that the children are in Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. “There is no question that these seven children that were taken are in a higher world in happiness and enjoyment,” he said. He said the children are receiving their rewards for being kind, giving, and selfless people during their short lives.
In that vein, Yedid announced that the Sassoon family created the Sassoon Children Memorial Fund, which will go towards funding Yeshiva education. The proceeds will be equally distributed to the Yeshivas in the community to help families fund their children’s education.
There was a nearly audible sigh of relief when the event was over. Some high school girls walked around the sanctuary and handed out pink pieces of paper and blue pens. They asked people to write down how the Sassoon family tragedy has impacted their spiritual life and brought them closer to God. They could submit them anonymously or could sign their name. But the final collection would be made into a book in memory of the Sassoon children.
“It’s not easy,” Lilly Abadi said of the community’s attempt to cope with the tragic loss. “We’re scared. But we have Hashem (God), who will help us get through.”