Fire on Middle Street

By CAM Docent, Miriam Weinstein

“We almost lost downtown tonight”

On the frigid morning of December 15, 2007, members of Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim were awakened with terrible news: their beloved synagogue building had burned. A fire that started in the Lorraine Apartments next door on Middle Street (the cause was later determined to be faulty wiring) had resulted in the death of one resident, Robert Taylor. Flames from that aged wooden building spread to the historic 1843 structure. Built as a Congregational church, it had been home to the synagogue since 1951.

Photograph provided by Miriam Weinstein.

There had been devastating fires in Gloucester before. In 1830 and 1864, fires destroyed much of the downtown. But this was the 21st century. Fires like this were not supposed to happen. The fear was that, if the fire spread beyond the Temple, the Sawyer Free Library would be next. Luckily, the fire was contained. “We almost lost downtown tonight,” Mayor John Bell told firefighters.

Saturday morning, when the news spread, was the time for the weekly service. What to do? Members soon learned that the Unitarian Universalist church further down Middle Street, had opened its doors. With smoke in the air and firefighters from eight towns still fighting the smoldering blaze, congregants hugged and cried and began their service. Partway through, the doors opened, and a line of firefighters appeared, carrying prayer shawls and books that had not been burned. It felt like a small miracle.

In time, the congregation, which is the only Jewish institution on Cape Ann, rented space at 33 Commercial Street, and began a process of deciding their future. They had been part of Gloucester life for over a hundred years, meeting first in homes, and then in larger venues. As the owners of the Lorraine Apartments began to rebuild, TAA members decided that, even though they could have found a more spacious site outside of town, they wanted to remain. Community trumped parking. They received gifts from members of the Gloucester community, and from supporters well beyond Cape Ann. They never missed a service, a holiday, or a social event.

The Lorraine Apartments were rebuilt. And, three years after the fire, members of Temple Ahavat Achim carried their donated Torah scrolls to their new building—a light-filled flexible space in the historic downtown. The congregation has continued to thrive in its new/old home.

Photograph provided by Miriam Weinstein.