On Shabbat, July 20, at 4 p.m., a fire started that destroyed a home but showed the strength of the Jewish community.
The only one home at the time of the fire was Elissa Galster, originally from Chicago, as the other two women who shared the apartment on the upper floor of the house, Sarah Kesler and Samara Kipnis, were away for Shabbos. The owners of the home on the lower floors were away in Israel.
Galster returned home on Shabbos afternoon after having a meal with a neighbor, falling asleep on the couch in the living room, until the fire alarm woke her. She walked through the hallway and opened the door to her room to see it completely filled with black smoke. She started coughing as the smoke reached her and had to leave the house without being able to retrieve any possessions.
Running barefoot into the street, she was able to find a passerby to call the fire department. Two neighboring Hatzalah members had seen the smoke and had already called, so the fire trucks arrived quickly.
The firemen worked for hours to put out the three-alarm fire and finally succeeded around nightfall.
The cause of the fire is not yet determined but it started in the upper floor of the home.
“I was in shock,” says Galster. “I pretty much lost everything. This is my whole life, everything that I brought with me when I packed up and moved here two years ago.”
The only thing they were able to save is her passport, which she’d kept in a lockbox.
Sarah Kesler had been in neighboring Clifton for Shabbos and no one was able to reach her before she returned to the scene to find black clouds of billowing smoke, and her home destroyed.
“There was no roof, no attic, no apartment,” Galster described the scene. “Anything that was left was soaked and ruined.”
But while the devastation was immediate, so was the outpouring of help. “The community has been so amazing. Before the fire was even put out, my friends and neighbors took me into their homes. Right after Shabbos they took me shopping to get me clothes, even toothpaste, everything I would need.” Fundraising accounts were set up by the next day to help the three women rebuild, which, at the time of this writing, had raised over $12,000.
The neighbors provided water bottles and snacks to support the fire department in their work, making a big impression on the firefighters. The actions of the community made their way into an article in a local daily paper, focusing on the kindness of the local Jewish community. As quoted there, Battalion Chief Kevin Colavitti said, “The community here is very supportive, they stick together, they take good care of us and we’re thankful for that.”
The three women said they are incredibly thankful and awed by the amount of kindness and care pouring in.
In a heartfelt open letter of thanks to everyone who assisted them, they wrote, “You opened your homes to us, and I do mean all of your homes to us. Never has a group of homeless women had so many places to live! You let us live with you. Really live with you. And somehow helped us feel normal about it.
“You gave us money and gift cards and toothpaste and pajamas. You gave us your own clothing, from head to toe. You took us shopping and told us what we needed. You gave us new, gorgeous clothing and a sigh of relief.
“You gave us food and water and so, so much love.”
The link to the donation page to help the women rebuild can be found here: https://thechesedfund.com/firegirls/fire-girls
By Leah Gottheim