Last Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in northland destroyed by fire

The remains of the Adas Israel Congregation Synagogue in Downtown Duluth which originally appeared on the Duluth News Tribune’s  site . Photo by Jed Carlson of Forum News Service

The remains of the Adas Israel Congregation Synagogue in Downtown Duluth which originally appeared on the Duluth News Tribune’s site. Photo by Jed Carlson of Forum News Service

Firefighters and police officials responded to a 911 call reporting the burning of Adas Israel Congregation Synagogue located in downtown Duluth, MN around 2:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 9. 

It was reported by Assistant Fire Chief of the City of Duluth, Clint Reff, that the flames came from a storage room located on the east side of the building. Firefighters worked through rain into Monday afternoon to stabilize the area while federal and state investigators worked to determine the origin and cause of the fire.

The nearly 120 year old building was the last Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the Northland. For the first time in 117 years, fourth and fifth generation family members will no longer have this building to create new memories in.

“The congregation originally started in 1888 in Canal Park in the home of my [great grandfather],” UMD alum Phillip Sher, the most recent president of the congregation, said. “I was born into that building. I was married there. I had my bar mitzvah there. I became president of the congregation there. There are so many memories I don’t know that I have a favorite one.”

Sher stated that the firemen were incredibly brave and kind enough to enter the building and recover 10 of the 14 Torah scrolls in the temple’s possession, along with the board meeting minutes and death records. According to Sher these scrolls are the heart of Judaism and the records allow the congregation to access important history of the temple and family members. 

According to Sher, he was able to point out the location of his office to several scene investigators following the fire. An officer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) offered to retrieve anything from the office, but Sher had politely refused knowing the dangerous condition of the building. However, the ATF investigator proceeded to enter Sher’s old office and retrieved his bag containing his deceased father’s prayer shawl.

“You don’t want to think about yourself in times like these, but man I almost cried,” Sher said.

In a press statement on Sept.15 the Chief of Police, Mike Tusken, explained that the investigation is still ongoing. However, they have 36 year old Matthew J. Amoit in custody under the charge of felony arson with bail set at $20,000. It is still unclear as to what the motive behind the fire was. The Duluth Police Department will issue the official complaint later this week with more details on the case.

“The outpouring of well wishes is just great,” Sher said. 

Currently there are no fundraisers set up and they are not asking for donations. 

Sher continued, “We don’t know where we stand financially. Money is hard to come by. We don’t want to ask people for a fundraiser until we know if we’re going to need it.”

Looking forward, the congregation plans to continue daily services in different members’ homes, and during the High Holy Days, arrangements have been made to gather in a larger special location until a new permanent home can be found.

The Adas Israel Congregation is asking that any notes, mail or gifts should be sent to the following:

Kate Van Daele
City of Duluth
Room 402
Care of: Adas Israel Congregation 411 West First Street Duluth, MN 55802

The Congregation is planning on setting up a P.O. Box in the future, but would appreciate any mail being sent to one address. Anything sent to the City of Duluth will be delivered personally.

NewsJaylynn Glaus