Remembering a tragedy

Lynbrook temple commemorates 50th anniversary of deadly fire

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Fifty years after a Lynbrook house fire took the lives of his parents, two of his sisters and his brother, Ira Levy still proudly recalls how involved his family was in Temple Emanu-El, now known as Temple Am Echad.

“My family’s whole life was centered around this synagogue,” Levy, now 70, told the congregation at the temple last Friday as it commemorated the anniversary of the fire. “They were here eight days a week, 25 hours a day. It was their social life, their religious life, and that’s how we grew up.”

Levy’s parents, Leonard and Ruth, were 49 and 45; his younger sisters, Jeannette and Barbara, were 16 and 14; and his brother, Edward, was 9. Ira wasn’t home at the time of the blaze, and his older sister, Helene Roses, now 71, was the only person who survived it.

Levy noted that his parents taught Hebrew school at Temple Emanu-El, and that he and his siblings attended every class and were involved in the temple’s youth group.

To honor their family’s legacy, Ira and Helene dedicated the synagogue’s ark — a cabinet containing the Torah scrolls — in their memory to mark the 50th anniversary of their deaths. The pair had dedicated the synagogue’s bima — a platform for reading the Torah — on the 40th anniversary, in 2008.

At the dedication service, Levy recounted the work his family did for the temple. He said that his father was on the temple board, served as the leader of the Social Action Committee and was involved with interfaith and interracial services. His mother was the synagogue’s librarian, and took art classes there. One of her paintings was on display during the ceremony, along with photos and newspaper clippings about the family.

“This evening is of remembrance, and not of mourning,” Levy said.

In Jewish tradition, families remember the anniversary of the death of a loved one by lighting special yahrzeit candles, which burn for 25 hours, and by saying a mourner’s prayer. According to Temple Am Echad Rabbi Sandra Bellush, the Levy family asked temple member Barbara Stern, who had worked with the family on previous remembrances, about dedicating the ark as another way to honor the lives lost.

The fire

On Sunday morning, Jan. 14, 1968, a fire started at the Levy house, at 96 Bixley Heath. Leonard, Ruth, Jeannette, Barbara and Edward all died of smoke inhalation, and the blaze was determined to have been caused by a faulty lamp.

Helene was asleep in her room in the attic when she smelled smoke, and she jumped out of the third-floor window into the snow-covered street. She was rushed to the hospital, where Harold Saperstein, the temple’s rabbi at the time, told her that her parents and three of her siblings had died.

Helene was 21 at the time, and worked as a nurse at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan while studying at Hunter College. She said she was able to survive on her own at that point. “I always say I was blessed to say I had a wonderful childhood,” she said.

Ira was 20 at the time, and serving in the U.S. Army’s 7th Medical Battalion in Korea. After he was informed about the tragedy, the Army arranged for him to return home for the funerals.

“It was a day of disbelief and a changing time of our life,” he recalled. “We wanted to honor our family, and the way we did so was having a healthy and productive life, and that was our north star and that was always at the forefront of our minds.”

Ira and Helene both now live in Manhattan, and both have children and grandchildren of their own. But Ira said he still feels a connection to the synagogue he grew up in. “For me, when I come back to Lynbrook, it’s coming home,” he said, “and it just touches my heart.”