DULUTH – Investigators probing the cause of a fire that destroyed a historic synagogue are examining new evidence and surveillance video hoping to learn more about what started the blaze.
Officials here on Tuesday said the investigation is ongoing and offered few new details about the fire that ravaged the Adas Israel Congregation, an orthodox synagogue that sparks childhood memories for Jewish community members across the Midwest and beyond.
“For people of faith who attend a building every week, sometimes multiple times a week, to have a building taken away from them overnight … this has been certainly very difficult for our Jewish community,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said at a news briefing at city hall. “We’re working in earnest to have a resolution on this.”
Investigators were knocking on hundreds of doors at nearby apartment buildings to learn what neighbors might have seen, and reviewing hours of surveillance video in search of answers, Tusken said.
He said that some of the video has “been incredibly helpful.”
Tusken added that investigators have no indication that there is a threat to any other places of worship.
The fire broke out at the nearly 120-year-old synagogue shortly before 2:30 a.m. Monday. State and federal investigators have been working the fire scene ever since, trying to determine the cause of the blaze and whether it was deliberately set.
Late Monday, officials said there had been no known threats made against the congregation. At that time, police had interviewed “several people of interest,” they said, but investigators had yet to discover evidence that would suggest arson.
After meeting with investigators and insurance adjusters Tuesday, Phillip Sher, past president of the synagogue, expressed little concern that the fire was a hate crime.
“I personally, nor are any of my members worried about that,” Sher said. “We found no graffiti. None of us have received any warnings or threats.”
No one was inside the synagogue at the time the fire broke out, but one firefighter was treated for injuries caused by falling debris.
The charred rubble of the building lay in a giant heap Tuesday afternoon when Steve Davis walked up to see the remains of the place where generations dating back to his grandfather worshiped. Though Davis now belongs to a different congregation in town, he would attend community-led services at the Adas Israel Congregation for special occasions, he said.
He lamented the loss of so much history. “It was just beautiful,” he said. “How do you replace artifacts … the books, the tapestries. It really does just make you sick.”
Like so many houses of worship, the congregation lost members over the years and had dwindled to about 35 or 40 local members, leaders said. But attendance swelled on holidays through the years, with children and grandchildren coming back to Duluth for traditional services.
Merle Paull Minda, now 80 and living in Minneapolis, recalled the special occasion of attending holiday services with her grandparents at what they called the “Third Street Shul” when she was a young child. She dressed up and sat upstairs with her grandmother, peering through a screen at the men praying below in Hebrew.
“When I saw this happened, I was just struck,” she said, adding that it rekindled memories she hadn’t thought about for years. “I think there are a lot of us spread out over the country who had experience with the ‘Third Street Shul.’ ”
Board member Mike Baddin said some people who left town maintained memberships simply to support the congregation.
“It becomes an emotional attachment. It goes back to our youth and where we grew up,” he said. “It becomes like another family. ... People have a sense of belonging to that family.”
The fire comes as three significant observances for the Jewish faith draw near. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sunset on Sept. 29. Yom Kippur, the faith’s holiest day of the year, begins at sunset on Oct. 8. The harvest holiday of Sukkot begins at sunset on Oct. 13 and runs until sunset on Oct. 20.
Sher said he expects the congregation will hold those holiday services at a hotel or other space this year. Regular services will probably be held in members’ homes until they figure out a long-term solution.
He said he doesn’t expect the congregation will rebuild in the same spot, but imagines they will seek out a smaller building that could be transformed into a synagogue instead.
Sher said he was grateful for an outpouring of support from the community as well as the donations of replacement religious items that were lost in the fire.
The congregation was not seeking donations and warned against unauthorized online fundraisers that had been set up, Sher said.
He hopes insurance will cover the financial loss. “It’s the emotional loss and the historical loss … and you certainly can’t make that up.”
The Adas Israel Congregation was formed in the late 1880s, and construction was completed in the early 1900s.
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call the tip line at 1-888-283-3473.
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.