Leave it to Allison Gutman, Director of Youth and Family Learning at Shaarey Zedek, to find the teaching moment in a personal crisis when she, her husband Brian and two young children came home on Tisha B’Av (August 14) to find their house on fire.
On the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av – Tisha B’Av – is observed as a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temples as well as other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history.
For the Gutman family, Saturday evening – Erev Tisha B’Av – started with a thunderstorm that knocked out the power on their street in Bloomfield Hills. “It was just as people were gathering in shul, getting ready to read Eichah – the Book of Lamentations – when we realized we were in for a long night at home,” she said. “That night, we had just finished dinner; our kids were in their pajamas, we were ready to put them to bed when we learned that the entire neighborhood had no electricity and that it would take an estimated 30 hours to restore power to our street.”
It had been one of those hot, muggy days. With the prospect of staying in the house with no air conditioning, no working fridge, their 3-year-old son, David, and their 11-week-old infant, Micah, it was a no-brainer for the Gutmans to take their family, their dog and the barest essentials to stay the night with Brian’s parents in nearby Farmington Hills.
“And the next day, we came home to our house on fire!”
“It was crazy,” Allison said. “When we left the house that evening, we turned off the stove, but left a skillet from dinner to cool on the electric burner. We weren’t home when our appliances kicked back on with such a power surge that the stove started a fire in the kitchen.
Allison described the scene:
“When we opened the kitchen door, the fire was still smoldering . . . talk about a glass being half full, what saved the house from entirely going up in flames was the glass backsplash my husband installed in the kitchen. Thank-G-d Brian is very handy and spent hours building a glass backsplash that went behind the stove and around the entire kitchen; that literally worked as a firewall for us.
The fire contained in the kitchen was the good news. The bad news? When the power returned, the air-conditioning kicked back on and circulated the smoke, soot and bad air throughout the house for hours. By the time the fire department arrived, there was smoke damage to every room in the house. Even in the face of disaster, the Gutmans would learn how fortunate they were that their house was still standing . . . and what a miracle it was that it was “all just stuff” that they lost and that their family was safe and sound.
And then the word spread . . .
“It’s amazing,” said Allison. “As a Jewish educator, I found a lot of meaning – and community connection – in the destruction of our house on Tisha B’Av. We all encounter moments of need in our lives, but the outpouring of help to our family has been the best part of our incredible story.
“We didn’t tell a lot of people what had happened to us, but I immediately notified our son’s Early Childhood Center (ECC) teacher at Hillel because it was a major event in his life and I was sure he’d talk about it at school. The Monday after the fire was also my first day back from maternity leave, so, of course, I told my boss because I needed some scheduling changes at Shaarey Zedek.
. . . “and suddenly, we had help coming out of the woodwork.”
“It didn’t take long,” Allison continued. “On that first day, Hillel, ECC Director, Robin Pappas, Rav Beit Sefer, Rabbi Yoni Berger, and David’s teacher, Ashley Weisberg all reached out to us with offers to help.”
“And then I started getting calls, texts – all kinds of inquiries each day – from Jewish Family Service, Yad Ezra, folks at Federation and at Congregation Shaarey Zedek – all asking what do we need, what can we bring, do we want meals, food, clothing, toys . . . carpooling, lunches and snacks for our son at school.”
“One of the first people to call on us was Lisa Soble Siegmann who arrived at our door with a bundle of PJ Library books for our son David. That first day, I was still buying socks and underwear and clothes for the family, because all we had were the clothes we were wearing when we left the house. Getting bedtime stories for our son – who loves to read with us – was huge load off our mind.”
“Another mitzvah we’ll never forget was the gift of a tallit katan (child-size prayer shawl) that Rabbi Starr and his sons gave to our son. We’re Shabbos-goers, and my son wears his tallit katan with pride. And when David explained to the Rabbi how he lost it in the fire, Rabbi Aaron came up to me after services and offered to shop with his sons to replace it.”
Picking up the pieces and moving on
Since August 14, the Gutmans have moved four times – from a week with family to a hotel, then to two separate rental homes. The reconstruction of their home will still take months, but reflecting on their journey, Allison observed, “It’s been an eye-opening experience, and we’ve been fortunate to have insurance, as well as enough in savings to get us over the humps of these first few difficult weeks. We’re in a position where we don’t have to rely on the services of our Jewish agencies, but I often think about those who do, and thank G-d for the work our agencies do, day in and day out.”
“Sure, it’s sad that our house was destroyed,” says Allison. “But the Jewish educator in me also sees the lessons of Tisha B’Av. We talk about the fasting and lamentations, but as we move through the observance of the day, we also move though the melodies of the Eichah, which move towards the light with each uplifting chapter. Ultimately, our holiday is about renewal and hope. And when I think about our personal story this year, I find that there’s real happiness in what happened to us. Our house burned. But our home is still here. There was good in it.”