Flames Consume a Synagogue, But Not a Congregation

July 15, 2011 at 6:00 am

Kehilath Jeshurun sanctuary before the fire. Photo courtesy of Howard Roy Katz.

After a fire destroyed Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side on July 11, MetroFocus asked intern Daniella Greenbaum, who has been a part of the congregation her whole life, to write about her personal experience.

In a city where trends change daily and cars zoom by at probably illegal speeds, consistency is the one thing that keeps me sane. Now, after 17 years of Saturdays (that’s 884 Saturdays), countless Yom Kippurs, Rosh Hashanas, Sukkots, Passovers and Purims, one corner of normalcy has quite literally gone up in smoke.

Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (or KJ as it’s known to its members), a synagogue over 110 years old, used to stand tall and proud on 85th between Lexington and Park. On Monday night, KJ was significantly damaged by a four-alarm fire. After years of joining together with the same people, and being a part of something larger, suddenly the building that housed it all is destroyed.

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This video of the July 11 fire at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on East 85th Street between Lexington and Park avenues was given to MetroFocus by Howard Roy Katz.

The architecturally perfect sanctuary that helped the voices of rabbis, cantors and kohanim (ancestors of Jewish priests) boom is now gone. The building that housed my brother’s Bar Mitzvah is blackened by fire and sorrow. The infrastructure that housed the prayers of so many diverse and beautiful souls will never be the same. The idea that in September, when renovations for Kehilath Jeshurun were scheduled to be done, I can’t go back into the sanctuary and sit in the women’s section with my mother and sister in the third row on the right side — something I have been doing my entire life —  is shocking, frightening and extremely disheartening.

Furthermore, KJ is connected to the Ramaz Lower School, and across the street from the Ramaz Middle School. I went to Ramaz from kindergarten through eighth grade, and have only happy memories from my time there. The idea that students might be displaced next year is depressing. The idea that this year’s fourth graders might not take over the sixth floor, might not be sent to the office on the fifth floor for misbehaving and might not visit the friendly nurse on the eighth floor for delicious Luden’s throat lozenges and stickers is bizarre. Those are rites of passage that younger cohorts might not experience.

As the fire raged, over two hundred members of the community flocked to the scene. The feeling of solidarity clouded the air almost more thickly than did the smoke. As I stood, and practically watched my childhood burn, I was comforted by the fact that my community was still joining together. We were still a community. I was, I am, still a part of something larger, and no physical facade can take that away from me.

Although the flames may have consumed the beautiful stained glass windows, the smooth stone arches and the entire sanctuary, my memories of the once perfect synagogue will remain happy and beautiful. The building may be damaged, but our community is as strong as ever. We will still have a “KJ bulletin” which talks about community events and reports whose relatives passed away. We will still gather to sit shiva, a traditional seven-day period for mourning loved ones, in the homes of our fellow congregants. We will still be present at simchas, celebrations like weddings, baby-namings and brit milas for welcoming newborn girls and boys into our community.

As associate Rabbi Eli Weinstock so eloquently put it after being asked about the future, “In the words of the Talmud, we have a responsibility to confront a situation in good times and in bad times. This is one of those times of destruction, and of hurt, and we will confront it with renewed efforts to rebuild and to make the community stronger. We are hopeful and confident that our community will step up to continue to be a glorious Jewish community for the Manhattan Jewish community, and to make a difference throughout the world Jewish community.”

Similarly hopeful sentiments were expressed by Rabbi Lookstein in an email to the community, when he quoted his father (also Rabbi Lookstein) saying, “Out of the ashes of destruction will come the seeds for reconstruction.” Tuesday, Rabbi Lookstein led a psalm-reading service and addressed his congregation. Even without a pulpit, Rabbi Lookstein’s voice carried through 85th street as he explained the difference between tragedy and catastrophe.

Although a once beautiful and sacred building has been heavily damaged, I can’t help but feel that the fact that no one died and no sacred artifacts were destroyed is a modern-day miracle. The building that housed KJ may be damaged, but the KJ community is as resilient and strongly bonded as ever.

Daniella Greenbaum will be a senior at Ma’ Ayanot High School in N.J. this fall.

Video courtesy of Max Feldstein

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