Op-Ed: Don’t Blame That Fire on Shabbos
Crown Heights lawyer and activist Eli Federman took to the pages of today’s New York Post to counter those who blame the observance of Shabbos on the horrific tragedy that claimed the life of seven children in Flatbush Friday night:
Last weekend, seven children from an Orthodox Jewish family died in a fire that ripped through a two-story home in Brooklyn.
Authorities say the cause of the fire was a malfunction in an electric hotplate used to keep food warm over the Sabbath.
The reaction by many in the city was shock, sorrow, sympathy and horror.
But in the rush to find answers, some have wrongly cast blame on the parents for not taking adequate fire safety precautions — and are blaming Jewish religious traditions that require appliances be kept running over the Sabbath.
Community and religious leaders, for example, said the story highlights the need for greater fire safety measures in the Orthodox Jewish community. One article, “Sabbath Observance Leads To Tragedy,” explicitly blamed the religious observance.
Mayor de Blasio spoke of the need for the city to look beyond smoke detectors in preventing fires — hinting that we take a closer look at the use of kitchen appliances by Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath.
Let’s be clear: No one can be too cautious when it comes to fire safety.
But blaming Sabbath observance is misplaced. It was, apparently, a malfunction of an appliance that caused the fire. Not a menorah or Sabbath candle. Yes, the hotplate was left on and unattended.
But the risk from a hotplate seems small, especially when you look at the causes of fires generally.
A standard “appliance cord or plug,” for example, was responsible for 715 fires, 12 deaths and 48 injuries over a period of just a few years, according to National Fire Incident Reporting records.
In the same period, refrigerators caused 1,514 fires, four deaths and 64 injuries.
The National Fire Protection Association reports that cooking equipment is responsible for a staggering 43 percent of fires, but only a mere 4 percent of those involve “portable cooking or warming units,” such as hotplates.
Ranges, ovens and microwaves make up the vast majority of kitchen appliances that start fires, not hotplates.
Then there was the apparent lack of working smoke alarms in the home.
Certainly, these alarms are a must, but their absence in many homes is a global fire-safety issue, not one unique to the Jewish community or Sabbath observance.
And while the Fire Department handed out fire safety literature and smoke-alarm batteries (at the eulogy, no less!), the fact remains that no one knows whether functioning smoke alarms in this case would have made a difference, considering the speed with which the house was engulfed in flames.
Using this fresh tragedy to lay blame on the Orthodox Jewish community lifestyle is cold, callous and misguided.
It broadcasts a message to the grieving survivors not merely that they are responsible and should have done more to prevent this, but that their religious custom is a danger.
In reality, this could have happened to anyone.
Again, hotplate fires are not that common — and nonworking smoke alarms are.
There is nothing wrong with finding teachable moments to better safeguard ourselves, but to do it in this way and in these circumstances, when the fire resulted from a defective appliance, is inappropriate.
This was a terrible and unlikely accident that could have befallen any family, Jewish or not.
Although more precautions can always be taken, no one is to blame (besides maybe the manufacturer of an appliance that malfunctioned).
Hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to make an armchair judgment and say this fire only happened because the parents were reckless.
Instead — and particularly at this moment — shouldn’t the conversation focus more on the lives and memory of the victims of this unspeakable catastrophe?
Yes, let’s acknowledge the need for greater fire safety measures in our communities. But let’s do it without pointing fingers at the Jewish Orthodox community.