A fire badly damaged the exterior of the Chabad of the Tri-Valley in Pleasanton in the early morning hours on Friday, shocking Rabbi Raleigh Resnick and many of his congregants right before Tisha B’Av, the holiday mourning the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem.
“The sentiment is not lost on us,” Resnick said. “We experienced a Tisha B’Av here like I’ve never experienced before.”
The blaze was reported around 12:45 a.m. Video shared with a local CBS affiliate shows a towering inferno multiple stories high, as fire trucks descended on the Jewish center on Hopyard Road.
Raleigh surveyed the damage to the rear of the building on Monday morning. Multiple trees had been burned to a stump, wooden shingles that once hung off the sides of the building were reduced to piles of ash on the ground, a plastic basketball hoop was melted, and mangled folding chairs and other debris were scattered on a back patio. Resnick said he had been using the area for storage at the time.
Officials from local police and fire departments are looking into the cause of the blaze. Sgt. Aaron Fountain with the Pleasanton Police Department told J. there were no “obvious signs of a hate crime.”
The building, a former Masonic Temple purchased by Chabad in 2017, dates to the 1970s and much of the infrastructure is worn, Resnick said. There are a few outdoor lights and a power line running along the back of the building. The trees near the line were destroyed.
The rabbi had left the building around 10 p.m. Thursday night. He said he was woken up around 1 a.m. by police and raced to the Chabad center, which is not far from his home. His first instinct was to run inside the building to save the three Torah scrolls. But officials “said I would be arrested,” he recounted.
Firefighters arrived within six minutes and gained control of the fire within 30 minutes, battalion chief Jason Solak told a local reporter. They stopped the flames from spreading to the inside of the building, keeping the interior intact. They also were able to salvage the Torah scrolls, which were handwritten by a scribe.
“They were really amazing,” Resnick said about the firefighters.
The center, which is being renovated, does not have security cameras installed — Resnick said he has been planning to do so with a recently received Department of Homeland Security grant.
Investigators are relying on physical evidence and interviews to determine how the fire started. On Aug. 7, the town of Pleasanton, an exurban city with a population of about 83,000, held a number of neighborhood block parties, and a fire department spokesperson said police officers would interview some of the people who attended one at the Chabad center.
“Hopefully that will produce more insight for a theory as to the point of origin,” said investigator Ryan Rucker with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department.
Police are also “making contact with neighbors” to see if anybody heard or saw anything, according to Fountain.
Fire officials on Friday told Resnick that the blaze appeared to have started on the exterior wall or on the soffit, the shingled overhang. One police official speculated it was an electrical fire. But the rabbi will have to wait for the conclusive findings after investigators complete their work.
“Fires don’t just start by themselves,” he said. “We just don’t know.”
Resnick, who started the Chabad center with his wife out of their home 14 years ago, said he’s received an outpouring of support since the incident. Emails from Muslim, Sikh and Christian leaders have peppered his inbox. A non-Jewish man who attended an event at the center, which hosts talks and community dinners, dropped by to deliver a $500 check.
“He said he couldn’t believe what had happened,” Resnick said.
On Monday morning, Dr. Ben Coplan, a pediatrician, came by to give Resnick a hug and to offer financial support.
“The good news is that no lives were lost,” Coplan said.
A bat mitzvah was planned for the coming Saturday, Resnick said, but since power has been cut at the center out of precaution, he is considering other venues.
Services held at his house the day after the fire were rather festive, considering the circumstances. “There was an extra measure of joy, somehow, in the pain,” he said. Tisha B’Av services the following day, also held in the yard his house, were ones he won’t soon forget.
“Here we are sitting on the floor outside, mourning the loss of the destruction of the Temple,” he said. “It was surreal.”
Resnick is working with an insurance company and said that personal donations can be made via the center’s website, here.