L.B. firefighters battle blaze at Temple Beth El


Long Beach firefighters responded to a blaze at Temple Beth El on Feb. 26, which forced the evacuation of members, workers and tenants in the building.

About 75 firefighters responded at 5:14 p.m., after smoke and flames were reported at the temple, at 570 W. Walnut St., with assistance from the Point Lookout-Lido, Island Park, Oceanside and Lawrence-Cedarhurst fire departments.

When first due units arrived at the scene, the blaze quickly escalated to a second alarm due to a heavy fire load, fire officials said. The main body of fire was quickly extinguished, and the Fire Department was on the scene for several hours extinguishing smaller pockets of flames.

“There was a decent amount of fire, a large volume upon arrival,” Fire Commissioner Scott Kemins said. “The fire went out relatively quickly — we did an aggressive attack on it, so the majority of the building was saved from major fire damage.”

Kemins said that two firefighters were treated at the scene for minor injuries, and no other injuries were reported. The fire was contained to the third floor, he said, which includes a caretaker’s apartment and a workshop. The Nassau County Fire Marshal is investigating the blaze, though Kemins said that the fire is not believed to be suspicious.

Kemins said that the building sustained some smoke and water damage, though firefighters from Point Lookout-Lido successfully removed six Torahs from the temple.

“They have electricians looking at [the building] now, and when they’re able to put power back into the building they should be able to get back in there,” Kemins said.

Nearby residents at the scene said that staff members were in the first floor offices of the building at the time of the blaze.

The building is home to Temple Beth El, though the JASA Senior Center also operates some of its programs at the facility. According to the New York Times, Temple Beth El constructed the 570 W. Walnut St. building in 1964 as a separate space that’s adjacent to the old temple, on Lindell Boulevard, which opened in 1928 but is currently abandoned, according to Kemins. Since the 1970s, the congregation began to dwindle, and the old building was last used as a bingo hall and a thrift shop, until the temple’s board decided to sell the property about several years ago, according to the Times.

“They have a new synagogue within the new building that they use now,” said Kemins.

The new building features a sanctuary, a commercial kitchen and a ballroom. There is also a caretaker’s apartment above, and nearby residents and members of the congregation could be seen milling about on West Walnut as firefighters worked to extinguish the fire.

Among them was 13-year-old Devine Karas-Gonzalez, who said he lives on the third floor with his grandparents and had returned home from school not long before he saw smoke and flames.

“I was in my room and I heard someone outside here screaming, ‘Get out, get out!” Karas-Gonzalez said. “And I looked out my window and there’s smoke coming. It looked like it was coming from the roof. I looked out the door, and there was smoke coming through, and I opened the door and there was fire everywhere. I looked down at the fire and I just ran out. I ran down here and screamed, ‘There’s a fire!’”

Karas-Gonzalez said that his grandfather, who works at the temple, was downstairs with other employees at the time, and his grandmother was at work in Brooklyn.

“I ran out with no sweater, nothing — this is from a bunch of people,” he said as he pulled on his sweatshirt and other clothing items. “Somebody gave me their shoes.”

He said about 10 people were inside the building when the smoke and flames broke out, and everyone evacuated.

“Everyone was downstairs working,” he said. “I got out of the door and I heard the alarm go off and heard the fire trucks coming in. I just ran down the stairs and got out. Everyone was out before the Fire Department got here, but they came within like 30 seconds, they were here really fast.”

When asked if his family has another place to stay, Karas-Gonzalez said, “We have options.”