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July 11, 2011 10:04 pm

Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue Gutted By Massive Fire

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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At about 8:30 PM, July 11, flames burst forth through the rear roof of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The four-alarm fire caused the roof of the 110 year old structure to collapse and, according to a fire department spokesman on the scene, heavily damaged the building’s upper floors and may have placed the entire structure in danger of collapse.

Throughout the quiet Manhattan neighborhood, fire department vehicles screamed towards the historic structure. Local residents, synagogue members and media poured into the quiet block that was the home of the synagogue.  Within an hour, close to a thousand were in the street as the synagogue home of the renowned Kehilath Jeshurun Congregation, founded in 1872, was engulfed in flames. Smoke billowed through the collapsed roof and seeped through the historic façade as fire-fighters perched on extended ladders poured streams of water into the structure. Smoke poured out of the once glorious stained glass windows.

On the street, flashing red and white lights glared in the hot summer night. The street between Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue on 85th Street was cordoned off and all non essential personnel were removed from the closed zone.  A Fire Department spokesman warned of a “possible building collapse.”

The Algemeiner observed one fire-fighter being removed by stretcher from the scene. According to sources, four of New York’s bravest suffered minor injuries; no civilians were hurt.

Religious artifacts, including the congregation’s Torah scrolls, had been removed and were not damaged. “We’re lucky,” said Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, “every Torah scroll is as special as a human life.” The venerable Rabbi, spiritual leader of Kehilath Jeshurun for more than 52 years, briefly shared words of inspiration with the gathered crowd, promising “we will rebuild.”

“Rabbi Lookstein is a hero. I am taken by his courage.  They will rebuild,” reiterated Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, who stood with the stoic Rabbi Lookstein as he addressed reporters gathered at the scene.

“Every Rabbi and every Jew, every New Yorker has their heart with this congregation.  We want to see this congregation rebuilt, and become more vibrant than ever,” Rabbi Yakov Kermaier, President of the New York Board of Rabbis, and Senior Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, told the Algemeiner.

Flames remained visible through the west facing windows of the structure even an hour after the fire was declared under control. By 10:35, Fire Department personnel and Fire Department vehicles had begun to leave the area in front of the building.  With the fire under control, residents of the neighboring building were allowed to return to their apartments. Buildings housing the synagogue-affiliated Ramaz School are also on the 85th Street block. The Upper School building opposite the synagogue is undamaged; the status of the contiguous building is unknown.

NYFD Deputy Chief Jim Hodgens, commanding officer on the scene, told the Algemeiner that the Buildings Department would assess the stability of the 110 year old structure.  The Chief stated that there was no imminent danger of collapse, and accordingly local residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Close to fifty fire and rescue vehicles responded to the fire.  After the flames has been extinguished, as vehicles were leaving the scene of the , the Algemeiner queried fire fighters, police and fire marshals over the origin of the fire, “It’s too early. It’s just too early,” responded a Fire Marshall”Nothing has been ruled out and nothing has been confirmed…The investigators will be here all night, the investigation is just beginning.”

The fire at kehilath Jeshrun had been considered "out" when the red glow of another "burn" was seen through this westerly window of what had been the second floor of the sanctuary. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

A saddened Rabbi Haskel Lookstein looked destruction in the eye and promised "We will rebuild." Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis and NYFD Chaplain is at Lookstein's right, a spokesman for the FDNY is at his left. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Smoke billowed forth from the roof of the historic 85th Street structure completely gutting the building. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

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