Out of Literal Ashes, a New Hope

| July 13, 2012 4:00 AM

A four-alarm fire ravaged the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue on July 11, 2011.

One year ago on July 11, 2011, the nearly 6,000-member congregation of Kehilath Jeshurun lost its synagogue to the ravages of a four-alarm fire.  Their place of worship had  stood on 85th Street between Lexington and Park avenues since 1902. At a commemoration ceremony on Wednesday, the congregation began with the Mincha/Maariv prayers before Rabbi Lookstein recounted the fire, the congregation’s past and future. 

Subsequently, Kenneth Rochlin, the director of institutional advancement, introduced in  detail the plans for reconstruction and remodeling.

The fire consumed the synagogue’s 110-year-old inner sanctuary, and severely damaged parts of  its attached Ramaz Lower School, which serves approximately 450 students from preschool through fourth grade.  The fire made it impossible for the synagogue to house services and in response, many neighbor institutions on the Upper East Side opened their doors to the community.

Rabbi Lookstein of the Kehilath Jeshurun congregation.

Associate Rabbi Eli Weinstock recalled, “there was an outpouring of offers of venues made by many in the Manhattan community. Starting the day after the fire, we were getting calls from churches, hotels, museums, the Y, inviting us to look at their respective locations and see if they would be suitable to our needs.”

And indeed, the Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun or “KJ” to members, did accept many offers of assistance. At the commemoration ceremony, Rabbi Lookstein thanked the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 92 Street Y, where various services have taken place over the past year, and Temple Emanuel, where all Ramaz Lower School students were relocated to at the start of the 2011-2012 school year, and the Park Avenue Synagogue. Rabbi Lookstein also revealed that the Met has offered to host  KJ’s high holiday services for the next two years.

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

According to the reconstruction timeline revealed on Wednesday, the synagogue will need to take the Met up on its generous offer, as the expected completion date is not until September 2014.

The synagogue decided to build upward, and the 10,000 additional square feet will create benefits for both the Ramaz Lower School and the shul. And in accordance with the latest fire and safety codes, fireproof materials are replacing much of the wood which encased the sanctuary, and larger aisles leading to exits will be created.

The community has raised over 70 percent of the budget needed for the remodeling campaign, and spirits were optimistic during the presentation. Last year, as 300 members of the community flocked to the scene of the flames, Rabbi Lookstein insisted everyone remember the difference between a tragedy and a disaster.

Rendering of new synagogue by Fx-Fowle

This year, he insisted everyone remember that this was a commemoration, but not a Yartzeight, which mourns the anniversary of a death. The congregants of KJ have lost an old and extremely beautiful sanctuary. But what they have gained from the fire is the knowledge that their leaders are capable of keeping their community alive despite the lack of a physical home.  And maybe most importantly, they’ve learned that KJ has many friends in the Manhattan community who are more than willing to step up, and assist in a time of need.

Daniella Greenbaum, a member of  the congregation of Kehilath Jeshurun, was an intern at MetroFocus during the summer of 2011. She recently graduated from Ma’ Ayanot High School in N.J.

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