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Orthodox community mourns children's deaths in house fire, examines cooking safety

Firefighters stand in front of the House fire

Firefighters stand in front of the House fire in the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn on March 21, 2015. Credit: Kena Betancur

The unfathomable deaths of seven children in a Brooklyn house fire Saturday left residents in the Orthodox Jewish community grieving Sunday and questioning how to observe their religion while still feeding their families.

Hundreds gathered at the Sassoon family house to pay their respects before Sunday's funeral service for Eliane, 16, Rivkah, 11, and Sara, 6; and their brothers David, 12, Yeshua, 10, Moshe, 8, and Yaakob, 5, who were trapped in the burning Midwood neighborhood home.

Their mother, Gayle Sassoon, and her surviving daughter, Tzipora, 15, remained in critical condition at Jacobi Hospital and Staten Island University Hospital North, respectively, Sunday. They had jumped to safety from a second-floor window.

The children's father, Gabriel Sassoon, had been attending a conference in Manhattan. The fire that swept upstairs where the children were sleeping started after midnight, sparked by what FDNY officials said was a faulty electrical food warming plate.

Midwood resident Shifra Schorr, 44, said Sunday the children's deaths cast a pall on the community and raised questions about the safety of devices used to keep food warm on the Jewish Sabbath, when cooking is barred. Using hot plates on the Sabbath is a common modern method of obeying tradition prohibiting use of fire on the holy day.

"We're heartbroken," said Schorr, a mother of five. She recalled how years ago, a fire broke out at her home during the Sabbath when she left a candle burning on her glass kitchen table and it tipped over. She said she doesn't use a hot plate, preferring a Crock-Pot to keep food warm.

"We're all talking about it," she said of the fire. "Everyone here has a family and has children, and to have the family ripped away, it's your life," she said. "I don't know how the family will go on. But somehow they will."

Four FDNY trucks were parked on Avenue M in Midwood Sunday, offering fire safety education and bearing signs reading "Only Working Smoke Alarms Save Lives." FDNY officials said there were no signs of smoke alarms on the first or second floors of the Sassoon home.

Judy and Moshe Goldring, who live across the street from the Sassoons, said they were struck by the bravery of the firefighters who ran into the house filled with wild flames and thick smoke.

"We saw all of it, unfortunately," Moshe Goldring said. "They charged right in. The place was ablaze. I've never seen anything like it."

Dalia Hen stopped at the Sassoon house Sunday and left in tears.

Hen, 51, lives in the neighborhood and even though she didn't know the Sassoon family, "my heart is breaking for them just the same."

"I couldn't help but cry my heart out as I saw the house," she said. "It's on everybody's mind. It's very painful. It's like our own children."

Hen said because Orthodox Jews cannot turn electrical appliances off and on during the Sabbath, "our only alternative is a hot plate" and that she's used one for several years without a problem.

Workers hired by New York City boarded up the house Sunday morning while an NYPD officer stood guard.

Sunday night, bouquets of flowers joined a vase of seven long-stemmed white roses with a large white bow that sat on the sidewalk as dozens of people, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) gathered for a candlelight vigil.

"Their tragedy is our tragedy," Schumer told the crowd.

Mychal McNichols, 74, drove from the Rockaways to attend with his wife, Barbara Flynn. They are Catholic and don't know the Sassoon family, but said they wanted to show support.

"Can you imagine living the rest of your life losing seven children?" McNichols said. "It's awful."


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