Rabbi Abraham Mykoff of Congregation Poile Zedek of New Brunswick was able to save the handwritten Torah scroll — known as the Sefer Torah — moments before the 90-year-old Orthodox synagogue on Neilson Street was destroyed by flames.
Only one person was inside the structure and escaped when the fire was reported Friday at 4:19 p.m., and no one was injured in the three-alarm blaze, according to the USA Today newspaper.
The cause of the fire is not known, but authorities appear to have ruled out arson and think the fire started accidentally.
The Ashkenazi congregation, initially made up primarily of Jews who emigrated from central Europe, formed around the turn of the 20th century and built the synagogue in the 1920s.
The imposing structure rises far above the neighborhood and dominates the condominium townhouse complexes that now share its Neilson Street block.
“I saw him watching the firemen go in, I knew inside they had the Sefer Torah,” said Donny Zinkin, who lives a few doors away from the synagogue.
Zinkin said he asked Mykoff if he needed help, but the rabbi just ran into the burning building and grabbed the scroll.
“When he came out, he gave it to me,” said Zinkin, who said he has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and called the rabbi “a very good guy.”
Zinkin said he wanted to go in after the synagogue’s other sacred documents, but Mykoff told him that the ceiling had collapsed and it was too dangerous.
“It was pretty crazy,” Zinkin said. “It’s a pretty bad fire.”
City officials called the fire “devastating.”
“It’s really been here all this time doing a lot of work for the community,” New Brunswick Councilman John Anderson said about the synagogue.
“It’s devastating for the city of New Brunswick and the community,” he said.
City spokeswoman Jennifer Bradshaw said firefighters were on the scene quickly and helped keep the flames from spreading to adjacent homes, which were evacuated.
“Firefighters responded within minutes to discover smoke in various spots in the building and shortly thereafter, flames broke through the roof,” Bradshaw said.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, the newspaper said.