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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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  • This is a blow to all American Jews. A historic synagogue has been stricken. Our well-wishes go out to the Rabbi and the Congregation from Los Angeles.

  • Steve Katz

    This IS a sign, which can be interpreted in different ways.
    But one thing is for sure … that is hurling insults at one another is NOT the way to create achdut/unity.

    PLEASE, PLEASE – do not engage in such things. It was this type of lack of respect that cost Rabbi Akivas’s students their lives, and also cost us the 2nd Beit Hamikdash.

  • Barbara Roberts

    Make aliya. The fire was a warning that Jew-hatred is out of control. What will it take for HKBH to get your attention????!!!!

    • Jerry

      @ Barbara
      1. Do you talk to G-d? How do you know what this was a sign for?
      2. Are you aware that religious people face blatant antisemitism in the state of Israel on a Daily basis, something you’d never witness in NYC?
      3. Whatever happened to וְלֹא תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ? Can we really feel safe in a country where immorality is the way of life and they are proud about it? Don’t you recall the gay pride parades in Jerusalem? הגם לכבוש את המלכה עמי בבית? You really think the Jews in Israel are safe? How about the warning of “ולא יראה בך ערות דבר ושב מאחריך”?
      4. You really couldn’t find a better place and time to spew your stupidity than here and now? How does this have anything to do with making an Aliya, A mitzvah that’s not mentioned anywhere in the torah.
      I’d understand if you were to say that this is a time we should be M’chazek ourselves in Shmirat Torah and Mitzvot, but Aliya?

      • sarah

        My sympathies to Rav Lookstein, the entire kehilla and to the Jewish nation who suffers when a holy place is destroyed.
        Nothing happens by circumstance and we must learn to learn from every situation what message G-d is trying to give us. Until prophecy returns, that may be open to some interpretation.
        However Rav Soloveitchik, z’l, said that we should recognize what is the main thrust of the world’s fight against the Jews at the present time, and that is where we must strengthen ourselves. When the non-Jews forbid our keeping Shabbat, circumcision, learning Torah, etc. that is where we made great efforts – in order to maintain the Jewish people.
        Today the world is clearly uniting against the tiny state of Israel – with boycotts, biased PR, flotillas and flytillas, promoting a unilateral appartheid, terrorist state called Palestine, etc.
        There is no doubt we must always learn Torah, do lovingkindness and keep the mitzvot. In addition, whoever feels the calling, or recognizes the Torah’s clear statements that our communal lives are whole only we settle the Land, should take that step forward. And things are not perfect in Israel, nor are they perfect anywhere. So if we must work to improve the quality of life, today we can choose to do that among the majority of Jews.
        And a note Jerry. It is offensive that you speak so nastily. What negativity. You can comment without trying to ram your thoughts down people’s throats.

      • Charles

        Jerry – Of course I and I am sure almost all others agree and support what you wrote. The community must focus on rebuilding the synagogoe to ensure that KJ will continue and that its values will continue to be taught to future generataions. Letters that are not in this spirit should be ignored – I was addmitedly shocked and when I saw the comment you replied to, especially as a Ramaz graduate living in Israel for the last twenty years.

        Best wishes to the KJ community
        Ramaz Class of 1981
        Tel Aviv, Israel

        • Charles

          Jerry – just reread your comment and sadly it is as bad as the others. This was a sad fire, sad for the community and nothing more than that. KJ is a special institution and I have has the privillege to live in Israel – an important commandment in the Tora- at least paritally becuase of the values taught to me at KJ and Ramaz. Any comments not directly related to supporting the very special KJ community at this time are unnecessary