Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun Fire: Blaze Shatters a Heart of New York Jewish Life

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Source: NYT, 7-13-11

Andrea Morales/The New York

Members of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun gathered outside the synagogue on East 85th Street Tuesday to survey the damage from a fire that destroyed the roof.

The fire that severely damaged Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Monday night sent ripples of distress across the Modern Orthodox community of Manhattan’s East Side and among Jews around New York familiar with Ramaz, its affiliated school.

Andrea Morales/The New York Times

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein delivered prayers on Tuesday. The congregation was founded in 1872.

Librado Romero/The New York Times

The building had been under renovation when the fire hit on Monday.

The synagogue was where generations of congregants gathered to pray — and schmooze — on the Sabbath, the place where they married their beloved, bar mitzvahed their young, bade farewell to a dead parent.

On Tuesday, dozens of congregants or their friends flocked to 85th Street near Lexington Avenue to view the damage for themselves, and many seemed stunned. Hundreds called and wrote the synagogue and Ramaz with expressions of sorrow and offers of help.

“This building is really the center of my life and my family’s life,” said Gabriella Major, 69, a psychological counselor who has attended the synagogue since she was 14 and sent her four children and nine of her grandchildren to Ramaz. “Everything — all my happiness and all my sadness — has been through this synagogue.”

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the synagogue’s senior rabbi since 1979, broke down and wept during the morning Shacharit service, held across the street at the Ramaz middle school, when he read the psalm that declares: “May God answer you on the day of your travail.” He took some comfort in leading the Kaddish prayer of mourning that follows soon after the psalm.

“It’s a prayer that says God’s will shall triumph, and we have absolute faith in that,” he said in an interview. He sent his community an e-mail that read, “Out of the ashes of destruction will come the seeds of reconstruction.”

The four-alarm fire, which broke out on the upper floors while the 110-year-old building was being renovated, destroyed the roof and punched out large segments of the four stained-glass windows on the limestone neo-Classical facade. Rabbi Lookstein said the collapse of the roof caused the sanctuary’s ceiling to cave in. The Torahs, however, were not inside the sanctuary because services were being held at Ramaz.

Rabbi Lookstein said that it would be difficult to resume services inside the synagogue in time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the pews swell with worshipers, and that an alternative space would have to be found….READ MORE

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