On the morning of Monday, Sept. 9, seeing the burnt and smoking carcass of the 118-year-old Adas Israel synagogue in Duluth, Mike Badden had one immediate reaction.
“This is the end of the line for this congregation, that there’s no building,” Badden, an Adas Israel board member who grew up at the synagogue, remembered thinking. “And there’s a lot of older folks.”
If the congregation had 200 families on the eve of the High Holidays in need of a synagogue, rebuilding wouldn’t be a question. But in an instant, the oldest continually-used synagogue in Minnesota vanished forever, loved by a community only ever big enough to keep the building standing – if nothing else went wrong.
An Orthodox/high Conservative synagogue with anywhere between 45-60 paying members, Adas Israel was in decline for decades. The sanctuary, built for 300 people, hadn’t seen daily services for “many years,” Badden said. The congregation sometimes struggled to find enough people to hold Shabbat services, and attracted few new (or young) members.
But the community and its beloved synagogue still trudged along, run by older volunteers and without a rabbi, until a fire consumed the building around 2 a.m. that Monday.
As the news and images spread, first of a synagogue aflame and then of eight rescued Torah scrolls, the Jewish world erupted. Amid panic that the fire was a hate crime, fundraisers were started for Adas Israel, both by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations, and on GoFundMe by an employee of AIPAC.
Jews of all stripes and colors wanted to help in one of the few ways they could – by donating – and vocally wondered when the synagogue would be rebuilt.
The solidarity, while noble, was out of touch with reality. Adas Israel asked that the fundraisers be shut down. They had no need for the money.
With a typical small-town-Minnesota stoicism, the truth went unspoken: The real death of the synagogue, though catalyzed by the fire, was the dwindled and eroded community. No fundraiser could change that, or help the congregation navigate a future without its cornerstone.
“It is difficult to reconcile,” Badden said. “And it’s really difficult to know what to do…I know for certain that the building is destroyed, and we’re not going to rebuild the synagogue there. I mean, that’s just not going to happen.”
For now, Badden says, the Adas Israel High Holiday services are being held at an undisclosed location, and occasional Shabbat services will be in the homes of congregation members. There are no long term plans for the community just yet.
“While we are asking for nothing in the way of material goods or financial donations,” Badden said, “the local community, the greater Minnesota Jewish community, and communities country-wide have been supportive beyond anything that we could have ever asked for.”
Dual Tragedies, Unanswered Questions
According to a criminal complaint filed on Sept. 16, 36-year-old Matthew Amiot, a homeless man with mental illness, was trying to keep warm the night Adas Israel burned down. He found a roughly 2-foot-wide space between the Adas Israel synagogue and a sukkah (a temporary hut built for the harvest holiday of Sukkot) standing behind the shul, and lit a fire.
“I lit a little fire and woke up and it was a lot bigger,” Amiot testified at a later hearing, pleading guilty to charges of negligence. Amiot couldn’t put out the fire, and left the area as it spread to the synagogue.
“I feel a great deal of compassion for [Amiot]” said Sarah Rose, a journalist and best-selling author whose mother grew up at Adas Israel. “I want him to get the help he needs. And our criminal justice system is not something I would wish on anyone. Even a synagogue arsonist.”
Despite Amiot’s guilty plea, a number of questions remain unanswered.
Before Amiot was charged with negligence, he was held by Duluth police with charges of first-degree arson, according to a press conference on Sunday, Sept. 15. First-degree arson implies an intent to burn the synagogue. At the same press conference, police said that they didn’t think a hate crime had taken place.
“We’re told it’s not a hate crime, which is hard to get your head around,” Rose said. “Someone wanted to set something on fire, they just didn’t want to set the Jews on fire.”
She added: “The more details we learn, the easier it is to be less afraid of the imagery of a synagogue burning.”
There was no press conference or statement by Duluth police to explain the change in charges from first-degree arson to negligence. The police did not reply to requests for comment by call or email.
And, for almost a week, Amiot simply disappeared. He asked that his court date be moved up from Oct. 8 because of a meeting for housing assistance, which he had spent three years on a waiting list to get, according to the Duluth News Tribune.
On Tuesday, Sept. 24, Amiot plead guilty to charges of negligence and was then released on the condition that he would meet with probation officers and stay at a Duluth homeless shelter until he received a sentence.
Amiot did neither. On Thursday, Sept. 26, a warrant was put out for his arrest. Four days later, on Monday, Sept. 30, he was taken into custody at the Douglas County Jail in Superior, WI, where he is currently being held without bail.
“I don’t get it,” said Jeff, a disabled man in Duluth who says he’s known Amiot for a decade. Speaking through Facebook messenger, Jeff asked that his last name not be used, for fear of death threats (which Jeff says the Amiot family has received).
“[Amiot] is a good-hearted person,” Jeff said. “I would bet the farm [that the Adas Israel fire] was not intentional, definitely no racism with that guy.”
Jeff said Amiot has a drug use problem (in addition to mental health issues speculated to be bipolar disorder) but didn’t specify the drugs. And though Amiot has over a dozen convictions of misdemeanor shoplifting and trespassing, “he never stole from me,” Jeff said. “He always helped out.”
Homelessness is a big problem in Duluth, according to Jeff, and he hopes Amiot will get support from the justice system. “We really need to help these people,” he said, “not just discard them like…vermin. They’re not going anywhere.”
When asked about Amiot, Badden said, “There is just sadness and mental exhaustion [among Adas Israel members], and we really don’t know this man’s true underlying story other than what has been reported in the news.”
Before the fire, Sarah Rose held on to the belief that Adas Israel would last forever. “The expectation was that the building outlives you, the community outlives you,” she said.
Now, Rose calls that expectation “naive.”
“When it seems like it’s an act of hate, you feel like, ‘oh my god, I really can’t go home.’ But the truth is, there wasn’t much of a home left to go to,” she said.
The Adas Israel Rose remembered – the Adas Israel her 87-year-old mother had grown up in – was long gone. “All of the people, all of the relatives, those older generations had all died out.”
At the same time, “I’m part of the problem, right?” Rose, who lives in New York, said, reflecting on the congregation’s decline. “Never in my lifetime did it occur to me I would live in Duluth.”
“It’s a place I love deeply. I don’t think there’s anywhere better on Earth. But the winters are really long and there’s not much to do there. All the reasons that people first moved to the Twin Cities and then moved out beyond are the same reasons I feel…it never entered my mind to return.”
Mike Badden doesn’t think Adas Israel is done just yet. A community of Shabbat-observant Jews, though small, still calls Duluth home, so the congregation will find a way to persevere.
And though the synagogue was lost, eight of the 14 Adas Israel Torah scrolls survived the blaze, carried out by firefighters in the fresh morning light on Monday, Sept. 9.
“It all feels very foundational to Judaism itself,” Rose said. “As metaphors go, here we are: The Temple was destroyed; we still have the scrolls. Pretty on the nose.”