Synagogue reaches out to assist fire survivors Congregation responds to Reservoir Hill tragedy

February 17, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When the fire started on Reservoir Hill one morning a month ago, the 90 children arriving for Sunday Hebrew school at Beth Am Synagogue could see the flames and smell the smoke streaming out of the brick house on Chauncey Avenue across the street just a few doors down.

Rabbi Paul Caplan, the children and the congregation quickly did what they could to help the survivors, especially the 31-year-old woman who lost so much, Veronica Mitchell. Adults and children at Beth Am could hardly believe that a woman could lose her daughter, mother, sister and grandmother in a day.

"The kids in Sunday school were very upset," said Beth Am's executive director, Hal Schlaffer. "We asked them, 'What do you want to do?' And they all had the same thought, to give from our charity fund."

They began a relationship with Mitchell and her family that continues today.

Mitchell and her brother, Andre Dargan, had a place to go: the home of their paternal grandmother, Annie Mae Dargan. And they had their father and three children: Mitchell's two older sons, Keon, 13, and Brandon, 7, and their late sister's son Davonte, 3.

But immediately after the fire, they took refuge at the synagogue. "We started our meeting with hugs, we didn't know what else to do," Caplan said.

The rabbi remembers Mitchell and Dargan saying, "We don't have any clothes other than what we're wearing," and they smelled of smoke.

Donations poured in. Two days later, Schlaffer said, "I was able to give them a check for $1,000." Clothes and toys, including a Barney doll, also came from the children, and adults offered services such as bereavement counseling.

"They were very kind," Mitchell said of the people at the synagogue. "They're still playing with the toys," she said, gesturing to her children in the next room at her grandmother's house.

Although the fire brought them together last month, Mitchell and her family have long-standing connections with some of the people who attend and work at the synagogue.

Tyrone Scott, maintenance supervisor of the synagogue, is a friend of the family. He fondly recalled 77-year-old Margaret McDonald, who died in the fire.

"She was everybody's grandmother. From spring, fall, summer, she was on that porch," Scott said. "We had drug problems around here, but she would never go inside" to hide.

Mitchell went to John Eager Howard Elementary School a few blocks away, as did Schlaffer, who grew up in Reservoir Hill in the 1930s and 1940s when it was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Although many of his old neighbors left, Beth Am Synagogue, which he has belonged to all his life, has remained.

"We chose to stay in this neighborhood," Caplan said. "We feel part of it."

The tragedy spurred other actions. Scott checked houses on Chauncey Avenue to make sure their smoke detectors were working.

"I just had to do it. You can't get no closer than your neighbor," he said, staring at the house where the grandmother once held court on the porch.

A girl at the synagogue, about to be bat mitzvahed, chose to give her 13th-birthday money to the Maryland Fuel Fund, a charity that helps pay heating bills for poor families in wintertime. A Fire Department official said the fire was started by a gas stove being used to help heat the house.

A month later, Mitchell is still struggling with her loss. "I think one day I'm going to wake up and they're going to be here," she said.

But those who know her see signs of healing. "She realizes she has three little ones to raise," said her father.

And last week, she paid a surprise visit to the synagogue.

"She knocked on the door and wanted to say hi," said Scott. "I took her to the rabbi so he could see her smile. I thought she would never smile again in her life."

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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