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July 18, 2011 10:56 pm

Kehilath Jeshurun Fire Investigation Under Way

avatar by Maxine Dovere

Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, Senior Rabbi of kehilath Jeshurun. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

The Kehilath Jeshurun community has joined together.  It gathers to sing, even in the streets, it comes together by phone and through the internet to lend support, and it meets in person to offer a hand or a word of encouragement.

Less than twenty hours after the sancturary of Kehilath Jeshurun was destroyed by fire, almost 200 gathered on the eerily quiet street.  Most were still not quite ready to believe the devastation that the fire had done to the 110 year old building housing the 140 year old congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  In the waning dusk of a hot summer night, flames shot through the roof of the synagogue. Then, even experienced fire officers had termed the building  a “potential collapse zone.” Seeing the familiar façade intact, still standing – albeit with its century’s old stained glass windows partially destroyed – provided a great joy to all those gathered.

In the open air, Hazan Meir Davis led members of his congregation in the recitation of psalms, prayers praising the power of the divine to comfort. Led by the renowned Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, The other Rabbis of the congregation, Rabbi Meyer Solivechek and Rabbi Eli Weinstock, led the street side congregation in prayer. “We stand here in the presence of miracles. Flames leaped to the sky, black smoke billowed towards the heavens,” said Rabbi Lookstein.  He praised the work of the New York Fire Department, the Police Department, and thanked the Buildings Department for a “report that was somewhat more favorable” than initial expectations.”This was a disaster but not a tragedy, a calamity.  But, when bricks and mortar are lost, both can be replaced and rebuilt.  Schools can be reopened,” he said.

No cause of the fire had been determined by late Monday. A senior member of the Ramaz staff said that a FDNY determination was being awaited. “We have to assess the damage, roll up our sleeves and get to work,” he said. “There have been offers of assistance from everyone.” He noted that Park Avenue Synagogue “has been very proactive” and offered the use of its classrooms.

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The official noted that, “due to the outstanding work of the FDNY, the Ramaz Lower School building sustained only water and smoke damage. The Fire Wall between the burning sanctuary and the school building contained the fire. “All of the public officials are absolutely outstanding,” a senior administrator to the Algemeiner. “There is no one that has not been outstanding and professional.” Asked whether there were any theories about the cause of the inferno, he said “not yet.  No one can venture any guesses until there is an official and definitive answer from the Fire Marshalls.”

A bright blue sky is visible above and through the fire damaged sanctuary windows. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Kehilath Jeshurun is located barely two hundred feet from a fire house. When the blaze exploded, the Firefighters from that house were not on Eighty Fifth Street: they were assisting the rescue of the 700 passengers caught in a train derailment.

The fire in question is under investigation by FDNY Fire Marshals. According to Jim Long, a FDNY spokesman, over 40 units and 170+ firefighters and EMS members responded to the fire. The first units were on scene in 3 minutes.

The Ramaz official concluded saying “we feel very blessed that we have the kind of community we do. It is a loss for us as a community, but we will rebuild and be stronger and more vibrant than ever. We will rise high above what occurred. The outpouring from every congregant, every parent, every student, and the way people have responded has been amazing.”

Asked about the presence of a “rat” and a “casket” placed in front of the Ramaz School building, Rabbi Eli Weinstock confirmed that a construction and general building laborers union local had placed these items on the street several times since the middle of May.

Representatives of the Pung San Construction Corporation, the general contractor for the Kehilath Jeshurun renovation, declined to comment.

Heavy equipment removes the heavily damaged debris. This was the roof of Kehilath Jeshurun. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Fire Marshalls examine every bit of fire damaged rubble taken from the Kehilath Jeshurun sanctuary. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Found among the rubble: a long forgotten Star of David. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Despite record heat, hundreds gathered for evening services. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

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