Monsey Memories: A Lifelong Firefighter Recalls the ‘Summer of Arson’

Monsey Memories: A Lifelong Firefighter Recalls the ‘Summer of Arson’

Yitzy Fried

Our column on a wave of arsons that plagued Rockland prompted the following response from Mr. Gordon Wren from Wesley Hills, who spent every day of his seventy-six years in the Monsey area. He and his family were avid firefighters in the Hillcrest Fire Department, and he recalls that summer very well:

“I remember that period,” he writes, “and it was a busy rest of the year. Mr. Butler (the arson expert brought in by the fire department) helped us form our first arson team. Once the team was established, arson fires dropped and then smoke detectors became popular. We had some great firefighters as a result of so many fires.”

We caught up with Gordon, who related that he grew up in Hillcrest, near the old firehouse. “My father was a chief in the late 40’s and 50’s,” he related. He spent his whole childhood in and around the firehouse. “If you’re Jewish, you get a bar mitzvah at 13. If you’re not Jewish, you’d get into the fire department at eighteen,” Gordon, whose family has been here since the 1600’s, smiles.

“Dr. Henry Kaplan brought me into the world and was my doctor until his retirement. His brother had a clothing store, Nat Kaplan’s, on Main Street in Spring Valley; that’s where everyone went to get their clothing. If you needed insurance, you went to Leo Wolfe, and Bernie Mager had a general store nearby alongside dozens more Jewish businesses, with everyone getting along and respectful.

It was a wonderful time in Spring Valley. We were surrounded by Orthodox Jews and everyone else. That’s why it was a wonderful place to grow up; it was so diverse.  

Hillcrest fire department was part of our upbringing, part of our tradition,” Gordon says. “When I was eighteen, I entered the force, and I eventually followed my father as fire chief. I have been blessed to be a part of many great things here in Rockland County, including at the firehouse.”

“This continues to be a growing, diverse community, and I am so proud to have friendships and collaborations with our frum neighbors,” said Mr. Wren.

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