In the early hours of March 11, 2002, the Toronto Fire Department responded to a 911 call from a passerby who reported seeing smoke at the Minsk synagogue. The fire was soon controlled, but not before it had caused extensive damage. Police declared it an arson attack, but concluded it was not a hate crime. The arsonist broke in through the back door and set the fire on the second floor in the women's gallery of the sanctuary, where stacks of prayer books and other religious texts were kept. Some of these books had been brought over by early members when they left Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Many texts were charred or suffered water and physical damage, since the firefighters tossed them out of the second-floor window to control the fire. When the fire ended that morning, thousands of texts were found strewn about the entrance stairway.
The women's gallery suffered the most structural damage, particularly where the large stained-glass window looks out onto St. Andrews Street . The exterior crowning above this window that extended from the roof was destroyed. The sanctuary itself, thankfully, was not as badly affected; water, smoke and debris caused most of the damage.
Overall, the repairs were estimated at about $200 000. Insurance money and generous support from both the Jewish and non-Jewish community provided the resources for the Minsk 's restoration. The students of St. Francis Xavier Catholic secondary school raised about $600 in donated lunch money to help the Minsk . In turn, benefit concerts held in and around Kensington Market featuring musicians and entertainers who volunteered their time also assisted with this cause.
Despite the damage, neither Rabbi Spero nor his congregants were discouraged by the attack. Daily prayer services continued as scheduled on the sidewalk outside the synagogue. As a result of all of the support received from the public and synagogue members, the building was ready in time to hold the community Passover seders less than three weeks later.
The damaged texts were more complicated to restore. With the help of a Heritage Canada grant, many of the books were shipped to Montreal in refrigerated trucks to be freeze-dried. The technique extracts the moisture, thereby avoiding the proliferation of mould, which would damage the books even further. The religious texts that could not be salvaged were buried in accordance with Jewish law.
Rabbi Spero continues to view the attack as an opportunity for renewal. The women's gallery has since been restored with a new children's play area. Ceiling fans were installed as well. The fire inspired the congregation to expand the Minsker's role in the Jewish community and they now have plans to institute a Jewish learning centre and a day care within the synagogue.
Damage to the women's gallery after the fire.
Members of the community help collect the books that were thrown onto the front steps of the Minsk .
Sefer Vayikrah (Leviticus), published 1885.
Efforts to salvage the damaged books in the Minsk 's basement.
Burnt and water-damaged books, laying out to dry.