| Magazine Feature |

Fire Escape

A month after the Night of Miracles, when a devastating fire tore through Jerusalem’s Sorotzkin enclave, Anglos return home with renewed gratitude and grit

Photos: Flash90, Personal archives

It’s been over a month since a devastating fire raged through a row of apartment buildings in the “Sorotzkin B” alley behind Jerusalem’s Rechov Sorotzkin, leaving about 80 families homeless in the Tuesday morning predawn chill. But now that the last families are back at home — thanks to the incredible chesed of hundreds of good people who rallied to their aid — residents whose adrenalin pushed them down smoke-filled stairwells and over porches, along with many others who spent hours trapped inside waiting for salvation, can finally look back with clear vision at the many, many nissim they lived through on that charcoal night.

In Jerusalem’s Unsdorf neighborhood, a hub for young Anglo families, the row of buildings behind Rechov Sorotzkin — the Sorotzkin B enclave — has its own flavor: Many residents are struggling kollel yungeleit or families who live in material simplicity for Torah. More than half of those displaced by the fire are Americans, many of whom are renters who don’t have homeowners’ insurance, a family support network in Israel, or much experience in navigating small emergencies — let alone major ones like a massive fire that upended so many lives, damaging apartments and destroying dozens of cars and personal storage facilities in the adjoining parking lot. Yet these families have discovered an inner resilience in the face of overwhelming material loss, and a commitment to continue to live in G-d’s courtyard, having felt His embrace as they emerged whole and essentially unscathed when logic would dictate injuries and even deaths.

On that Leil Shimurim of November 23, hundreds of residents of the apartments on Rechov Sorotzkin B were awakened to a nightmare of flames and heavy smoke that prevented most of them from leaving their apartments. By the time they were evacuated up to two hours later, many reported being sure they were going to die, like the helpless victims trapped on the upper floors of the Twin Towers.

But it was a night of miracles: After dozens of dazed parents and little children finally emerged — glasses, hair, and skin covered in soot — all those taken for medical evaluation were released from the hospital after a few hours of observation.

One family, living in an apartment without a porch that would have given them some breathable air, opened their freezer and breathed into that as the thick black smoke entered every corner of their house. In another apartment, the mother was in the hospital after having just given birth, and the father was trapped in the blaze alone with seven small children, who were eventually rescued by firemen with a ladder through their window. Another family, five flights up on Sorotzkin 31B, decided to make a run for the exit down the stairs through the thick smoke, which made seeing each other impossible. By the time they reached the bottom, they realized that one of the children was missing — unable to see in front of him, the little boy had run back inside and spent the next two hours alone in a smoke-filled house, hiding in panic under a blanket while his family waited in terror.

Next door, in Sorotzkin 33B, the electricity was down and it was pitch-black by the time the F. family woke up. Groping their way through the thick smoke and darkness, they managed to gather their children and make a run for the main exit — which led them right into the fire outside. With each parent holding onto several children, they soon realized that one little girl was still inside. She was eventually rescued by her father, who ran back into the smoke-filled building through another roundabout entrance (the one they’d escaped from was no longer accessible) and through a series of miracles, was able to extricate her — both of them finally emerging blackened but whole. Meanwhile, their ten-year-old daughter, who had run ahead through the blaze to safety and found herself separated from the rest, was sure she was her family’s lone survivor. When they were finally reunited, she told her mother, “I didn’t know what to say first, Vidui or Shema.”

Straight into Hashem’s Hands

By the end of the week, it was discovered that the fire was in fact ignited by a disturbed, suicidal young man from a troubled chareidi family who’d recently been released from prison. But for Aharon Moshe Freimark and his wife Chevie, it really didn’t make a difference who was to blame. “It was Hashem’s fire,” says Reb Aharon Moshe, “and if we get busy focusing on the shaliach instead of the Source, it means losing the focus of Hashem’s message.”

The Freimarks, who’ve been in Israel eight years — he’s a kollel avreich and she’s an occupational therapist — live in Sorotzkin 31B, the building in which nearly all the residents were trapped. Somehow though, Reb Aharon Moshe managed to lead his family to safety in a way he describes as nothing less than miraculous.

“Our apartment is on the ground floor, one flight up from the parking lot and the machsanim where the fire originated, so it was really in the center of the inferno as the flames leaped through the openings onto our level,” he relates. “It was a warm night, so part of the neis was that people has their windows open. Around 3 a.m. we heard shouts of ‘Fire! Sreifah!’ but outside it was eerily quiet — all we heard was the gushing sound of flames and smoke and the blasts of dozens of cars exploding one after another and machsanim being demolished. We tried to get out, but the fire and smoke were lapping at our door and the house was really getting hot.

“So we gathered our five kids who were sleeping in the next room and made our way to a small porch we have in the back, which faces the valley below. We looked to see if someone could help us, but it was so quiet — all we heard were the cars being incinerated and the sheds crashing down, and it sounded like our building would be next. The only thing we could see was the smoke coming out of all the neighbors’ windows, above us and in the next building.

“During those moments when it was so quiet, I thought maybe chas v’shalom those in the building next door were already asphyxiated, and seeing some of our neighbors on their porches with the smoke billowing behind them, I thought we were next. If we ever get out of this, I thought, tomorrow we’ll be going to our neighbors’ levayos.

“We knew we had to get out of the building, but how? The entrance to our apartment is on the ground floor, but since our building is built into a valley, from our back porch, it’s a seven-meter (23-foot) drop to the ground below, about the height of three stories. On the side of the porch was a flimsy drainpipe for taking down the sponja water from the upstairs neighbors, so I told my wife, ‘I’m going down the pipe to see if there’s something I can do.’ I took hold of the pipe, and told her to hand me one of the kids while I climbed down. And then, as I was holding onto both the pipe and my four-year-old daughter, the pipe detached at the bottom, and I found myself swinging with it together with her in the direction of the valley.

“And then I lost my grip on the pipe. I was falling through the air holding onto my daughter, with jagged boulders and metal pipes sticking up from the ground 23 feet below. But really, Hashem was holding both of us.

“And we both went flying into His Hands.”

The year before, a neighbor underneath the Freimarks installed a huge prefab Keter shed with a Keter closet on an extension of their apartment. “With Hashem’s tremendous chesed,” says Aharon Moshe, “I landed flat on my chest, right on the Keter closet, smashing the top of it — and smashing my ribs — but also somehow breaking my daughter’s fall as she rolled onto the floor behind the closet.

“I checked her right away, saw that she got up and was fine, so I picked myself up and decided to climb back up to get the rest of my kids and my wife. I’d broken several ribs, but somehow I didn’t feel any pain. Then I noticed a ladder attached to the building next to where we landed, although it didn’t go all the way up — it ended about 15 feet underneath our porch.

“Still, I climbed up as far as it went, and my downstairs neighbor, whose apartment is below where the fire was and abuts the valley, was already outside and handed me a stepladder that I was able to put onto the siding ladder, so that raised it up a few more feet. And the drainpipe, although detached from the bottom, was still attached at the top, so I was able to grab onto it, climb up it and reach our porch. And I know without a shadow of a doubt that Hashem was totally propelling me, with my broken ribs and all, because after I got my family down, I could barely move. It was only b’sha’as ma’aseh that Hashem pushed me back up there. Two days later I couldn’t even get out of bed.

“Anyway, I climbed back up the pole to reach the porch, but there is a very high safety wall on this porch that the children couldn’t jump over. I told my wife to hand down the kids one at a time, and we’d go from the pole to the ladders. So she handed me the seven-year-old — I grabbed him and put him on the ladders, and he was able to climb down himself. Next was my six-year-old daughter, who climbed down like it was monkey bars. Then it was time for my three-year-old son. I pushed myself further up the pipe to meet him at the top of the ledge and my wife handed him over without looking down. I told her, ‘It’s okay, let go of him.’ I pulled him toward me, went back down the pipe and put him on the two ladders. By that time my neighbor was helping me get the kids down the ladders. Next was my one-and-a-half year-old son. My wife handed him to me, I was able to climb down the pole with him, and get him down the ladders as well. As I took a last look toward the porch, I saw the smoke rolling into the apartment like Makas Choshech, about to overpower everything.

“And then it was my wife’s turn. She was in her ninth month, but with Hashem’s angels for assistance, somehow she was able to lift herself off the ledge, climb down the pipe, and catch onto the ladders. As all this was happening, I knew we were all in Hashem’s embrace — there is no way this could have happened in ‘real life.’ ”

By this time, no one else could get out of the building — the porches were too high and the stairs were inaccessible. All there was to do was wait — and pray.

Yet as Aharon Moshe was making his way down for the final round, he saw a sight from the corner of his eye that even he couldn’t believe: The neighbors across the hall were throwing their children out the window.

Over the Edge

Aryeh Leib and Ahuvah Z., a young American couple who live one flight above the parking lot as well, knew they needed to find an exit as the smoke and heat billowed into their home. With three-year-old Chana, two-year-old Yitzchak, and seventh-month-old Kaila — and with thick black smoke at their door, orange flames in the windows, and no porch in the back to run to for safety — there was little recourse but to do something drastic.

“I want to stress at the outset that nothing we did was responsible for the outcome. This was all about Hashem’s chesed to us,” says 24-year-old Ahuvah, who works as a neighborhood babysitter while her husband learns in kollel. “Hashem was with us every step of the way, that’s the only explanation for how our rescue happened. Hashem is front and center here. We were His pawns and He guided us to do what we had to do.”

As the front of the house began to heat up, they grabbed the baby and ran to the children’s room which was in the back, with a window facing the valley.

“I told my husband, ‘We have to jump out the window!’ but ever-calm as he is, he said, ‘It’s fine — we’ll just stay here until we see how bad it gets,’ ” Ahuvah relates.

“Meanwhile,” she says, “we didn’t hear any sounds from neighbors — all we heard were sounds of explosions as the parking lot was in flames and cars and machsanim were being incinerated. I was sure no one else in the building was alive, and we were the only survivors. Although the room still felt safe as the smoke hadn’t reached it yet, we knew it was just a matter of time, that we needed to get out the window. It’s about a flight and a half down onto the neighbor’s porch, which seemed like a doable drop, as long as you made sure to land on the porch and not on the other side of the railing, in which case you’d fall onto the rocks in the field below.”

The grates on the window were the kind that slid open, in order to access the old rusty laundry line outside it. They’d never used it though, and were planning on locking the grates to keep out unwanted visitors. Now they knew why they never got around to it — the window was their only apparent hishtadlus.

“The laundry line was in the way, so Aryeh Leib headed for the kitchen to find some kind of blade to cut it, but he never made it that far. The rest of the house was too hot and smoky, so he ran back into the bedroom and shut the door,” Ahuvah recounts. “Now it was just us, this room, a window, and a porch several meters down. He was about to jump, but it looked really scary, it was really a far fall. Hashem put in his mind to take a mattress and throw it down to the porch to pad the landing, and then he climbed over the laundry contraption and noticed a slippery wire on the side of the building that went about a quarter of the way down. When he got to the end of the wire, I watched — and screamed — as his foot got tangled in another wire, causing him to flip and hang upside down. With Hashem’s help, he managed to untangle his foot and, still miraculously hanging onto that slippery wire which didn’t really have a grip or enough strength to hold his weight, he landed on top of the open door of the porch. From there, he jumped down onto the porch floor. That was another miracle, because that door alone could have seriously injured him.

“Then he called for me to throw down the kids, one at a time. Don’t ask me how I did it — it was like throwing your kids out the train window onto the snow during the Holocaust. I was petrified, but I assumed that we’d all die if we stayed inside so there was really no choice. The first to go was Kaila. I was holding her in her blanket, but I was afraid that the blanket would fall off and he’d catch the blanket instead, so I took it off her and threw her down. He couldn’t exactly catch her from such a high place, but he was able to break her fall so that she could land on the mattress.

“Next came two-year-old Yitzchak. I lifted him out of the crib, took him to the window, and threw him down feetfirst. He started screaming, but my husband was able to break his fall too and he landed on the mattress. He had a tender jaw for a few days, but nothing else. Then Chana saw what was happening and got hysterical — ‘Mommy, you can’t throw me out the window!!’ I told her, with a calmness I didn’t even recognize myself, ‘Chana. Close. Your. Eyes. And. Don’t. Look.’ I threw her down, and Aryeh Leib broke her fall as well. I literally felt Hashem stretching out His net to catch my family. There’s no other explanation.”

But that wasn’t the end. Now Ahuvah was alone in her home that was about to burn up.

“I’m really bad at these things — I have no idea how to climb or jump, but I knew I couldn’t stay inside,” she says. “By sheer force of will, I somehow moved out of the window and positioned myself on one of the metal bars that holds the laundry line, trying to grab onto the pole. But I went out facing front, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to maneuver myself to jump. Also, I was wearing crocs so my feet couldn’t get a grip on the wall, and then my clothing got stuck on the metal but I couldn’t let go and use my hands to free myself, or even to turn around and go back inside — which wasn’t even an option at that point because the room was already filled with smoke. So here I was, literally hanging in mid-air, and a few neighbors saw and shouted ‘don’t jump!’ Meanwhile I was in a lot of pain, and petrified. I just closed my eyes and kept repeating ein od milvado. Finally, after what seemed like eternity but was really only half an hour, the police and Hatzolah came with a tall, skinny ladder, and two of them helped me down to the porch. Someone else helped me get down off the porch to the ground, and I miraculously found myself reunited with my wonderful family, all wrapped in towels and blankets from good neighbors.

“Finally, when people from other buildings began making their descent — in our building, families were stuck on their porches for the next two hours — as one family after another emerged, it was literally like meeting war survivors you thought had died.”

A World of Needs

As shocked, soot-covered families made their way out of the buildings, they were met by an unforgettable wave of chesed. Hundreds of people from all over the neighborhood were running toward them with bottles of water, towels, skirts and snoods for the women, diapers for the babies, and whatever else they could think of.

“The entire neighborhood was there for us,” says Aharon Moshe Freimark. “There was a man who’d made a chasunah that night and was still up — he took in five families, my wife and kids among them, while Hatzolah took me to the hospital to make sure my heart was okay and that my sternum wasn’t broken.”

The next morning, his family, together with his wife’s sister’s family who live in the next building, were placed on 27 Sorotzkin — a vacant apartment belonging to Reb Avraham Wolfson ztz”l, one of the greatest supporters of the olam haTorah who passed away three weeks later, in the middle of Chanukah, on December 15. (Several days before, Aharon Moshe and Chevie, who still hadn’t moved back home, decided to light Chanukah licht in their own apartment and sleep there for the night. But a few hours later, they experienced an ironic closure, when she went into labor and delivered a new baby.)

“He was very sick, but did this incredible chesed until his last moment,” says Reb Aharon Moshe. “And providentially, we were back in our house the day he was niftar, when the family came to sit shivah.”

The chesed that poured in during those weeks was heroic. People were just giving and giving.

“They just kept knocking on the door. ‘Here’s clothing for the children, here’s a new sheitel, here’s a new hat, here’s a new suit, here’s a Shabbos robe.’ It was unbelievable to witness,” says Aharon Moshe.

The Neshei of Unsdorf signed up 250 women to make meals, help clean, babysit, make sandwiches for school, and provide anything else needed. Eateries like La Casa, Hadar Geula, and several pizza stores kept up a constant flow of provisions. And there was so much money handed out — people in Israel and abroad, neighbors, friends, and anonymous donors, opened their pockets wide.

The municipal workers of the social services department couldn’t believe the way the Anglos were being cared for with such devotion by their own. One social worker commented, “We need to focus on the Israelis here, because the Americans have come together in such an amazing way. They’re being taken care of like a community.”

But while so many people were helping out, giving out food, clothing, and cash, assistance would be much more efficient if it were organized under one umbrella. The day after the fire, Rav Pinchas Horowitz, the English-speaking rav of the neighborhood, organized a meeting with some activist avreichim, together with the neighborhood gabbaim of the Ezras Achim volunteer organization that gives support to needy American yungeleit in Eretz Yisrael, in order to get all those offers of help — from buying clothing to fixing the electricity — on the same page.

“We hired someone to be on ground and go through every single dirah, to find out what every family had already received and what they needed,” says Eli Kirzner of Ezras Achim. “We’re talking about 80 apartments. Before we came on board, there was so much assistance flying around, but it wasn’t so organized — some families weren’t getting the help they needed while others received more money than they needed.”

Their vaad raised several hundred thousand dollars, and worked in tandem with other organizations such as Yad Eliezer and Vaad Harabbanim to make sure there was no overlap.

“But we’re not really an emergency organization,” Kirzner explains. “Ezras Achim is a quiet, 31-year-old organization established to help chutznikim who don’t have the resources or finances to navigate the Israeli system, so this was new for us as well.”

The organization has around 100 gabbaim, in every yeshivah, in many kollelim, and throughout the Anglo neighborhoods, whose job is to spot those who need help and bring it to the attention of the organization. “Most of these people won’t reach out on their own, so that’s why we have gabbaim in every corner,” says Kirzner.

Chaim Frankel is one such neighborhood gabbai, who lives on Sorotzkin in one of the nearby buildings.

“We’re a few avreichim who basically jumped into this the morning after the fire,” Frankel says, noting that their assistance was for everyone, not just the Anglo community. “So many families lost so much — Israelis, Americans, chassidish, litivish, so many people from so many different communities were affected that we needed to set up a committee, with the help and experience of Ezras Achim, that would help us figure out this whole mess,” he says.

“And the needs were varied. Many of the families are renters, and most of them didn’t have insurance on possessions, although those who bought their apartments with a mortgage have mandatory structural insurance. There were Americans who’d never shopped here and suddenly needed a wardrobe from scratch. Some families lost all their appliances, and some apartments were barely damaged but were still inaccessible because of the damaged stairwells or lack of electricity. People whose machsanim went up in smoke lost their succahs, their Pesach keilim, and many other valuables. Dozens of people lost their cars. Many are still suffering from trauma. So every family was its own world of need.”

Don’t Lose It

Americans who choose “safe” neighborhoods like Rechov Sorotzkin don’t fathom terror attacks or disasters. And if the unexpected occurs, they don’t always have a support system, insurance, or resources for such emergencies. Yet after the fire, no one was fleeing to the safety and comfort of “back home,” even though their lives had been upended.

“The tremendous communal care actually strengthened our resolve to stay, to be part of this,” says Reb Aharon Moshe. “I still become emotional when I think of how special Hashem’s children are. If I were to give this chapter a name, I would call it, ‘the fire that welded us together.’ I don’t believe we’ve ever felt such caring and achdus before.”

Ahuvah Z. says that while her parents were begging them to come back to the States, at least for a while, there wasn’t anything to talk about. “Here you feel Hashem is so much closer, and I’m not the only one,” she says. “There was so much chesed in this trauma — I keep flashing back to watching how Hashem was catching my babies. One neighbor was very traumatized and did fly back to America for a few weeks, but most of us have stayed put.”

But along with the gratitude, the trauma is still there. The lingering smell of smoke, the flashbacks of the kids being thrown out the window — there’s a lot to process.

“Well, we talk about it all the time, and my kids play fire all day long, so that helps,” Ahuvah relates. “They sit on their toy fire trucks and scream, ‘Throw the mattress out the window! Get ready to jump!’ As for me, when I was a child I suffered from fears and I had some therapy for that, so it was really the refuah before the makah. I learned how to handle my fear and how to get past it — I guess it took all the fear out of me. In the moment, I was just laser-focused on getting everyone out of the apartment, and my husband said he’s lucky it was me and not him up there. He’d never be able to throw down the kids.”

In the early morning after the fire, after Reb Aharon Moshe Freimark was released from the hospital with a taped torso and instructions to rest and heal, he went back to the building to see if he could salvage his tefillin before davening. Then he remembered that the day before, he’d been in a hurry and had left them in the stroller by the building’s entrance instead of bringing them inside. That’s when the sense of total loss really hit him.

“I saw what the building looked like. Everything was black, the entire chatzer was pitch black from soot. I only saw daylight if I looked up at the sky,” he relates. “I went to daven, feeling totally powerless. I said, ‘Hashem, I have nothing and I can do nothing. Help me out over here.’ ”

There was surely pain in all the loss, all those pieces of a family’s identity that can’t be replaced in an appliance store. But along with the loss came something precious. “When you realize that you’re able to breathe,” he says, “that you can fill your lungs with clean air in the morning when you wake up, everything else falls to the wayside. And you know, now that we’re back in our apartment, there’s one thing I miss: that incredible closeness to Hashem I felt as it was happening. Once real life settled back in, it hasn’t been so easy to hold on to that part. As much as we hoped and waited to get back to ‘normal,’ that’s one thing I don’t want to lose — the realization that Hashem is totally there and present.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 843)

Oops! We could not locate your form.