A sprinkle cookie was all little Leah needed to feel like she was back in a warm, cozy home. “Sir, can I have another?” she asked. “Of course,” I responded. “How about a can of Coke with it?” Leah was just one of tens of children and families displaced by the horrific fire that ripped through Twin Parks Northwest 333 East 181st Street this past Sunday morning in the Bronx, taking the lives of 19.
Late Sunday afternoon, I received a rushed call from Rabbi Tzvi (Harry) Berkowitz, Chief Chaplain at the NYS Fraternal Order of Police and founder and director of Universal Jewish Police Association, asking for my assistance at the recovery center set up in a nearby school lunchroom. It seemed appropriate that Misaskim members should be on hand to assist bereaved, who only had the clothes on their backs. I teamed up with Moshe Teicher, a trusted member, for the special mission to assist those affected by the five-alarm fire in an affordable housing development plagued by decades of disinvestment.
As we entered the tragic scene - the worst fire the area has seen in over 30 years - we were confronted with the reality of men, women, children, and pets all left homeless and seeking direction. Aside from the NYPD Community Affairs officers, Red Cross, a handful of chaplains, and a Halal food truck, there really was little aide for the families. Amidst the tears of neighbors, there was a band of yarmulke-clad men from Brooklyn’s Shomrim safety patrol; NYPD Community Affairs Commanding Officer Inspector Richie Taylor, Commissioner Fred Kreizman of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, along with Rabbi Berkowitz, me, and Teicher of Misaskim. Our task was quite simple: Empty three Shomrim vehicles filled up by Alexander Rappaport of Masbia Soup Kitchen Network and distribute its contents in a mark of a kidush Hashem.
Rappaport had received a $5,000 grant from Asden Properties to help the victims. Asden is part of a group of Jewish Bronx-based landlords. In no time, he loaded up essentials like toiletries, packaged danishes, and drinks. Next, he had Greenfeld’s catering cook up chicken nuggets and rice, which was delivered fresh to those suffering. Rappaport himself came to the staging area with another two workers to boil up tasty soup for those preparing to board buses to be taken to local hotels for temporary housing. I heard directly from Congress Member Ritchie Torres, Assembly Member Yudelka Tapia, and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson about how every string was pulled to ensure that accommodations were being made to keep the families in the Bronx and for the children to be able to get back in regular schooling routines easily and parents back to work.
“It is about caring, showing support to those who live in another borough, and sharing in the anguish,” explained Rappaport.
“There is a certain sense of relief that a homeless family feels when they receive fresh towels, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, and shampoo,” Commanding Officer of the 46th precinct Deputy Inspector John J. Potkay said to the Queens Jewish Link. “Providing nutritious meals for families serves both a purposeful and meaningful action.”
Two Jewish institutions were announced as drop-off centers for relief items: SAR Academy and Riverdale Jewish Center.
To blame for the inferno is a malfunctioning front door that failed to close when a space heater in apartment 3N ignited a mattress, sending toxic smoke and fire throughout the structure. The 100-apartment, 19-story prewar building did not require a sprinkler system. A policy safety task force is underway to examine contributing failures.
Volunteers included Motty Brauner, a Boro Park Shomrim member who was an original Chaverim of Queens dispatcher; Marco Nuseiri of Shomrim; Sam Gillig of Crown Heights Shomrim; Mendy Greenblatt of Flatbush Shomrim; Akiva Zeitlin; Eli Navon; Tuly Wertzberger; Chaim Solinsky, who only joined the Boro Park division two weeks ago; and Yitzchok Friedman, who drove one of the vehicles. Special mention goes to the wife of Moshe Weinberger, who waited patiently with their child as her husband distributed items.
The message that night was clear: The Jewish community wished to share in the pain, and lend a comforting ear and warm embrace to the victims dealing with unspeakable tragedy. No, a cookie will not make problems vanish, but it can make the pain easier for a mere moment.
By Shabsie Saphirstein