100 Years of Congregation Brith Sholem: Honoring the Jewish Community in Ogden, Utah: The 1989 Fire that Destroyed the Interior of the Synagogue

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The 1989 Fire that Destroyed the Interior of the Synagogue

On Saturday, December 30, 1989, during the early morning hours, the interior of Congregation Brith Sholem’s synagogue was intentionally set ablaze. Small fires were started within the synagogue, including on the altar, the front entrance, and the basement. Although the fire destroyed much of the interior, the foyer received the most damage. Other damaged items included two American flags, books, papers, and shawls. Fortunately, the most important item of the Jewish faith, the Torah, was removed from the Holy Ark by the arsonists and placed on the floor, remaining undamaged by the flames.[1]

Although the arsonists were never caught, police discovered two windows facing the north that had been broken, indicating the arsonists entered the synagogue through these points. It is believed these two unidentifiable persons entered the synagogue planning to steal valuables but became upset when they found nothing of interest and set the interior ablaze. Because the Torah was found on the floor and not stored in the Ark as is custom, it is believed the two criminals targeted this item, but decided against taking the Torah.

DNO-0128_Interior of Synagogue before fire - The_Ogden_Standard_Examiner_Sat__Feb_22__1986_.png
Image from newspaper article that shows a religious service in progress which shows the interior of the synagogue before the fire, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Sat., Feb. 22, 1986. 

The fire started by both vandals caused tremendous damage for Ogden’s Jewish community, both physical and emotional. Samuel and Linda Zeveloff, members of the congregation, remember how their “tight-knit community was distraught as well as fearful that this was an act of anti-Semitism.”[2] The attack on the synagogue was believed to not be anti-Semitic but rather two vandals searching for valuable items to quickly sell.[3]

The fire devastated the congregation as it ruined the place that united its Jewish members. Steve Haas, president of the congregation at the time of the fire, provided a statement of appreciation to fellow Ogdenites written in The Ogden Standard-Examiner. Steve wrote:

The Jewish Community of Ogden is appreciative and acknowledges the many offers of physical, moral and financial support from our friends in Ogden and surrounding areas following the arson of the Ogden synagogue. We of the Jewish community have sustained a deep sense of personal loss and violation as a result of this act of vandalism. In spite of our temporary loss of prayer books and the use of our historic building, services will continue on a regular basis . . . Congregation Brith Sholem looks forward to its continued presence in and service to the community of Ogden.[4]

While the damage was assessed and repairs were made to the synagogue, the congregation conducted religious services at McKay-Dee Hospital in the Green Room.[5]

DNO-0125_drawing of synagogue's interior for renovation after fire 1990.jpeg
Drawing of synagogue’s interior for renovation after the fire, 1990.

The fire gutted the whole interior of the synagogue, with an estimate of $50,000 in damages. Unfortunately, the insurance would only cover half of the expenses. It was discovered that everything inside the synagogue needed to be replaced, including lighting, seating, a Holy Ark for the Torah, and new windows. Cindy Tachman, a prominent member of Congregation Brith Sholem and interior designer, led the Renovation Committee started by the congregation shortly after the fire occurred. The committee, consisting of members Steve Haas, Jay Lyon, Jeff Schneider, and Cindy, created remodeling plans for the interior.[6] Many members also helped with the renovation of the synagogue as some members took home some of the salvageable items in the synagogue, like menorahs, and removed the soot from the fire and polished them.[7]

[1] Dennis Romboy, “House of Worship Burned,” Examiner (Ogden, UT), December 31, 1989, 25.
[2] Sam and Linda Zeveloff, A Torched Synagogue and Shoeboxes of Cash, 2021, 1.
[3] John DeVilbiss, “Jewish Leader Doesn’t Believe Fire Anti-Semitic,” Examiner (Ogden, UT), January 1, 1990, 18.
[4] Steve Haas, “Jewish Community Appreciates Support,” Examiner (Ogden, UT), January 5, 1990, 9.
[5] “Jewish,” Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 10, 1990, 35.
[6] Congregation Brith Sholem Restoration Summary Report, 1990, Congregation Brith Sholem Collection, Congregation Brith Sholem, Ogden, Utah.
[7] Zeveloff, A Torched, 2.
[8] “Panguitch Group to Aid Ogden Synagogue,” Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), January 9, 1990, 22.
[9] Zeveloff, A Torched, 2.
[10] Zeveloff, A Torched, 2.
[11] Tim Gurrister, “Arson-hit Synagogue Celebrates Reopening,” Examiner (Ogden, UT), September 16, 1990, 8.
[12] Zeveloff, A Torched, 2–3.
[13] Congregation Brith Sholem Restoration Summary Report, 1990, Congregation Brith Sholem Collection, Congregation Brith Sholem, Ogden, Utah.
[14] Gurrister, “Arson-hit,” 8.
[15] Mary Lou Phippen, “Synagogue Destroyed by Fire Reopens,” Examiner (Ogden, UT), October 6, 1990, 37.
[16] Gurrister, “Arson-hit,” 8.
[17] Zeveloff, A Torched, 3.
[18] Congregation Brith Sholem, “November 2020 Bulletin,” The Shofar, accessed July 10, 2021, https://us16.campaign-archive.com/?u=956042bd2f0a79978872aba8e&id=5a40766e77.