After a Synagogue Fire, Finding a Home for the High Holy Days

After a Synagogue Fire, Finding a Home for the High Holy Days

September 29, 2011 at 6:00 am

A fireman studies the four alarm fire at Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue on the East Side of New York Monday July 11, 2011. Although the congregation has begun to rebuild, community members have been searching for other places to pray during the High Holidays. AP/David Karp

Ever since the synagogue I grew up with, Kehilath Jeshurun — or K.J., as it’s affectionately called by its members — burned down in July, my family and I have been trying to figure out where we would spend the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

On those holiday, which fall this year on Sept. 28-30 (Rosh Hashana) and Oct. 7-8 (Yom Kippur), almost all Jews, even the secular ones, visits the synagogue at least once. Because my family is religious, we go to all the services, especially during the High Holidays.

As I watched the July 11 fire engulf the synagogue I’d gone to since I was born 17 years ago, I remember thinking that I was watching my childhood burn down. And after the four-alarm blaze, K.J.’s 6,000 congregants, including me and my family, thought we would be homeless for this year’s High Holidays.

But we couldn’t have been more wrong. Organization after organization — from other synagogues to churches, museums and hotels — stepped forward to offer K.J. their space.

In the days following the fire, I realized that while the flames had consumed our synagogue, they had not consumed our congregation; in fact, the terrible incident had only strengthened our community. Now, my realization has gone a step further. The fire has not only reinforced the bonds within our congregation, but to the Manhattan community as a whole, Jewish and secular.

This video shows the July 11 fire at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on East 85th Street between Lexington and Park avenues. Video courtesy of Howard Roy Katz.

The Pierre Hotel offered their ballroom for Rosh Hashanna. The St. Ignatius Loyola  Church offered space for regular prayer services. Synagogues all over the Upper East Side, including Park Avenue Synagogue and Temple Emanuel, offered space for students of the Ramaz lower school, which had held its classes at K.J.

This year, some of the K.J. congregation will spend the High Holy Days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while others will be praying at the Ramaz Middle and Upper Schools, which have a relationship with the synagogue and are located across the street. My family and I will spend the holidays at the middle school.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, left and Cantor Mayer Davis, right, lead members of the Kehilath Jeshurin congregation in a prayer service in front of the synagogue. AP/Frank Franklin II

As it rebuilds, K.J.  is holding its weekly services at the 92nd Street Y. While the experience is certainly different, I have found that K.J. at the Y is extremely enjoyable (and for some, like myself, very convenient — I live down the block!). Of course, the situation is still a bit bleak; although the Y’s auditorium is big and beautiful, it’s nothing like the 100-year old inner sanctuary of K.J.

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

Right now, K.J. is being rebuilt. The process is going to take at least a year, likely two. For married couples settled in the community who plan to be here for the rest of their lives, two years might not seem like forever. But as I am applying to college and thinking about taking a gap year in Israel, the idea of my last weekends at home not being spent in K.J. is disheartening.

Still, the fact that so many different venues in the community scrambled to their feet during a time of need and offered assistance to the K.J. community showed me that “love thy neighbor” can transcend all differences. I will cherish that thought going into this year’s High Holy Days.

Daniella Greenbaum was an intern at MetroFocus during the summer of 2011. She is now a senior at Ma’ Ayanot High School in N.J.