Investigation underway into what caused a fire that destroyed a Tallahassee center for Jewish life

The Florida State Fire Marshal has begun an investigation into the cause of a fire that destroyed a Tallahassee center for Jewish life over the weekend, saying it could take months to determine if a crime was committed.

The fire at the Chabad of Tallahassee and Florida State University is one in a string of blazes at Jewish worship centers around the country in the last year, though investigators have not released any preliminary information about the blaze.

A Louisville, Kentucky center was a total loss after the Chabad’s regional headquarters caught fire last month as an adjoining building’s blaze spread. An Almaden Valley California center caught fire in December and was being investigated as an arson. A San Jose Chabad center also caught fire in December although authorities said it is not believed to be connected to a crime. 

A police car that was stationed outside a Lauderhill, Florida Chabad center as a deterrent to vandalism was burned in January by an arsonist. The fire and vandalism are not suspected to be connected. 

Tallahassee firefighters were dispatched to the Chapel Drive Jewish worship center at about 3 a.m. Sunday. Fire crews found flames coming from the roof and by the time they were put out, determined the building was a total loss.

Rabbi Schneur Z. Oirechman said the fire destroyed Torah scrolls, hundreds of books and 20 years of teachings. “We are first thankful to God no one was hurt,” he said.

‘Dark times’: Fire destroys Tallahassee Jewish center; cause of overnight blaze unclear

The Jewish center serves more than 5,000 in the Florida State University community and members in the Panhandle from Tallahassee to Pensacola. Chabad has been serving the community for more than two decades and has alumni all over the world. They’ve been operating from the building – which was a former church that was renovated for more than $100,000 – for the last 10 years.

The nature of such investigations takes time, said state Fire Marshal spokesman Devin Galetta.

Investigators have to wait until a scorched structure is safe to enter, then take samples to be analyzed in a lab and reconstruct the scene before any final determinations can be made.

Tallahassee Fire Department spokesman Todd Inserra said it is normal for the Fire Marshal to assume an investigation, but that doesn’t mean a crime has been committed.

“They’re called in for a bunch of different reasons,” Inserra said. “That does not mean anything is criminal. They’ll do a full investigation.”

Oirechman said he was continuing to hold services with Florida State students this week as investigators search for the cause of the blaze. He said he didn’t have a reason to believe any criminal act was behind the fire. 

He said the outpouring of support from everyone from politicians to students and the public has been overwhelming and he remains optimistic that the house of worship will rebuild and further its mission.

“It’s not easy. It’s very difficult,” he said. “I am focusing on a better future. I don’t let myself look at the darkness and I’m focusing on the light. You could look at it as a sign from heaven that I have bigger and better things to do in this community.”

The fire has drawn the attention of several state lawmakers.

“Grateful no one was hurt, praying that this is not arson,” Rep. Allison Tant wrote on Twitter.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said the loss of sacred Jewish documents and the pain of the Chabad’s leader and congregation are heartbreaking.

“The idea of Torahs burning is a heartbreaking image for any Jew. These are sacred scrolls that we treat with reverence,” Fine told the Democrat. “Rabbi Oirechman is a Jewish guide for those of us who are Jewish in the legislature. When there is an issue that’s of importance to Jewish Floridians, whether it’s in Tallahassee or not, Rabbi Oirechman is usually there.”

“We will help him come back stronger,” he tweeted.

The Legislature’s Jewish Caucus noted the tragic fire happened during Jewish American Heritage Month.

“The Florida Legislative Jewish Caucus, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers, shares in mourning this tragic and significant loss,” the 12-member board including Fine and Tant wrote in a statement Monday. “The burning of a Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is heartbreaking to Jewish people and ignites a hole in the souls of Jews everywhere.”