Flames Consume a Synagogue, But Not a Congregation

| July 15, 2011 6:00 AM video

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.

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

  • sholem

    Fabulous article!!!!! I am so impressed by the writers skill and clear voice. The story is moving and beautiful. I Wish the congregation luck in rebuilding.

  • Rebecca

    what an enlightening article! i hope everyone is ok.

  • Jaime

    Great article….So True!

  • Juju Shapiro

    The line “i practically watched my childhood burn” brought a lump to my throat, but then i read on and found myself smiling as Daniella wrote, “The building may be damaged, but our community is as strong as ever.” A moving article, i send my prayers and good wishes. Juju

  • Daniel

    Great article. Such a sad story. beautifully written though.

  • jason

    This article moved me to tears…beautiful article.

  • Nancy

    wonderful article! The writer has such a clear, eloquent voice. The story is so sad though. good luck to the members of this synagogue

  • WALTER L. ROTH

    I also cried when I read of the tragic fire. I now live in Jerusalem and my memories of KJ are still strong as my late father Joseph Roth was Vice President for many years as well as a board member of the Ramaz School and a close friend to Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. My father sat on the left side of the bimah so that we could hear every word of the Shabbat sermon. My late mother Shirley sat on the right side of the women’s section so that she could see my father and I. She might have been in the third row of that section with the writer. On Shabbat afternoon my parents along with the Rabbi, his wife, and many of the congregants used to gather at a specific bench on the East Side of Central Park to schmooze together as a very special community of friends.

  • Jerry

    This young lady has a great future as a writer and as a humanitarian. Congratulations on a great article.

  • marjorie rozman

    What a beautiful commentary on a very special community. Kudos to Daniella in being able to articulate her thoughts as well as impressions of her years growing up at KJ.

  • Martin Greenberg

    My parents were married there in 1932 and I was Bar Mitvahed there in 1948 right after another renovation. The first was to the Rabbi’s son and I was second.
    It is a great loss to the community.
    Martin Greenberg

  • R.M.K.

    This essay is very poignant and moving. When I heard that the synagogue had burned I thought of another synagogue fire — that of Central Synagogue. I hope that the congregation of Kehilath Jeshurun is able to regroup and rebuild as that congregation was. (I’m not Jewish nor do I follow any religion currently but I feel for people who lose their sacred space, their safe space in the world.)

  • Ruthann (Roth) Nahum

    The many Shabbatot and holidays that I spent at KJ as a child and young adult hold a special place in my memory and in my heart. Even though I did not carry on the more orthodox traditions of my dear grandparents, Joseph and Shirley Roth of blessed memory, their sense of community and family traditions followed me on my aliyah to Israel many years ago. I remember the awe I felt as the light filtered through the stained glass window (as if G-d was looking at us at that very moment), and the faint buzz of conversation between my grandmother’s freinds up in the womens section. And oh my great sense of pride as I peered down at my Papa Joe in his top hat, sitting on the ‘bima’ with Rabbi Joseph Lookstein! The delicious meals in the enormous and beautiful Sukka; the many children clamouring after my grandfather, MY grandfather, for the tiny licorice candies he always had in his pocket, the wonderful acoustics in the synagogue as everyone’s voices raised in prayer together, and also during the somber and more personal prayers of the High Holidays…. It is indeed a blow to the Jewish community of New York, indeed to all of us, to have this beautiful structure so damaged. But surely this strong and spiritually commited community known as KJ will, with G-d’s help, re-group, and re-build a renewed center for education, prayer and dedication to Israel.

  • Elizabeth V.

    Thank you Daniella for an eloquent synopsis of the life an historic temple.

    One can feel your love of KJ and the hurt you feel for its near destruction, By the Grace of G_d and the dedication of the members of the temple, it will be restored.
    I am sure the people of the city of New York will also rally to its aid.

    The sight of the coverage on TV was heart rending.

    I received an e-mail from THIRTEEN. I thank THIRTEEN for sharing your story with us via METRO FOCUS. La Chaim to the Congregation.

  • Judie Biderman

    Both my children, David and Pamela attended Ramaz and KJ all years from Kindergarten through High School. David’s Bar Mitzvah was in KJ, and I will never forget that although it was drizzling that day when we went in for services, at some point I looked up at the incredible stained glass windows… the sun started to streaming–it was an extraordinary & uplifting experience.

  • rita stern

    I am shocked but Im with her I think of “NEVER AGAIN” (I am one of thelast holocaust survivors) and we shouldo our utmost to rebuild the synagogue
    Shalom
    Rita Stern

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