On Shabbat afternoon March 25, 1911, the upper floors of the Jewish-owned Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan caught fire.
Due to the building’s structural flaws, the number of people working at the time, and the lack of responsive emergency personnel, 146 lives were lost in just 18 minutes.
As labor lawyer Jonathan D. Karmel explains in detail in the book “Dying to Work”, the event was a crucial catalyst for modern safety regulations. While this was not the first factory fire, and certainly not the last, the number of lives – as well as the gruesome images of people leaping to their deaths – were enough to force a meaningful response.
110 years later, I wonder if – and how – today’s Jewish community will come to terms with our own Triangle Shirtwaist moment.
After three horrific and preventable tragedies this year: the trampling of pilgrims in Meron, the collapse of a bleacher in an Israeli synagogue and the collapse of a predominantly Jewish residence in Surfside – all related to the design, standards of construction and occupancy, and accessibility regulations – we relive the factory fire in slow motion. And yet our answers seem completely out of touch with reality.
There has been no widespread call for an overhaul of our regulatory practices, no marching in the streets demanding answers for the families of those we have lost. Even in a spiritual sense, we can easily relate these instances to religious and spiritual regulations and laws. And yet, this is not the dominant discourse around these events. We just lowered our arms and lowered our heads.
If we are truly to honor the victims of the Surfside disaster, we must accept the mistakes and entirely preventable missteps that led to their untimely death.
On October 27, 2018, our response was very different.
Moments after the havdala, social networks were already in turmoil.
The Tree of Life synagogue shooting had only taken place a few hours earlier, and there were already demands for immediate action to ensure our shuls, schools and any other identifiable Jewish buildings were safe. of any danger. Along with the collective mourning, there were discussions about the costs of private security guards, the likelihood of people starting to carry guns in the synagogue, and the halachic issues related to these topics.
Within a week, communities organized dedicated security funds, the National Network of Jewish Federations responded with their support, and the rabbis provided halachic information.
As a native of Pittsburgh and a Jew whose entire life revolves around Jewish institutions, I did not question that answer for a moment. Although the bodies and names of those who died were not even disclosed, it was evident that there were clear and present issues that needed to be addressed. And while many security measures were not personally attractive, Shabbat was coming back in just a few days. Other buildings could easily be too accessible to potential attackers. We couldn’t afford to waste time.
We have not seen the same robust and rational response to these three disasters. Especially as we enter the annual period of mourning in the Jewish calendar, aren’t there countless buildings and events erected right now that could have exactly the same consequences as what happened? at Surfside?
Perhaps the threats that come from outside, the tragedies that are so clearly the result of blind hatred, are much easier to fight. But it is just as vital to look within and challenge the disasters, fueled not by animosity but by apathy, that await in our own communities.
Our kids are heading to camps where there can be many randomly constructed scenes and countless ways that food poisoning, car crashes, and zip line accidents can happen. There are easy, helpful, and meaningful steps we can take to avoid unnecessary suffering – and no, we can’t afford to wait. Why then is there such hesitation?
Unfortunately, the Triangle Fire provides historical insight.
Sprinkler systems, firewalls and fire staircase systems, all absent from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, were already in place in many cotton mills by the end of the 19th century. The garment district was aware of these practices, but owners generally did not implement them, as the expected financial losses from a potential fire did not appear to exceed the costs of implementing the safety procedures.
Government agencies largely allowed this, preferring to let business owners determine the financial decisions they were prepared to make.
In fact, that’s only because a mass movement of New Yorkers took to the streets days after the Triangle Fire tragedy – and because a district attorney indicted the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac. Harris, for manslaughter – that history has propelled a public safety and regulation conversation. Without this populist outrage, it’s likely we would have simply cried and moved on.
The initial indictment also led to countless civil lawsuits, and the entire clothing industry felt the real potential loss of ignoring best practices. Just ten years later, almost every state in the country had workers’ compensation laws in place.
Employers – not workers – were the most powerful group promoting these laws. They saw the Shirtwaist Kings lose everything in mountains of civil litigation and knew what their fate would be if there were no clear regulations in place.
And that is what we are currently lacking in the Jewish world. We are missing a mass movement. We do not hold owners responsible or seek the support of those involved in development and design.
We won’t see any changes until we do.
The regulations are known, the workers on the eighth floor are screaming fire, and we are still trying to catch people with nets when we have to make sure our buildings are no taller than the ladders of the fire trucks.
I can only hope and pray that we can talk about these past tense events very soon. Let’s work to make them the subjects of history books and town planning lessons rather than the reasons we keep crying over our tehillim.
Hannah Lebovits is Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Arlington.