Sticks and Stones: Reflections On The KJ Fire
Wed, 07/13/2011
Special To The Jewish Week

Among my most vivid childhood memories is sitting on the floor of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun's majestic sanctuary on the eve of Tisha B'Av, listening to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein preface the reading of the scroll of Eicha with the words, "Tonight is nineteen hundred and …years since the destruction of our holy Temple…" Hundreds of people, gripped by the mix of history and immediacy, would shed tears over a building that went up in flames, each wisp of smoke carrying a memory.

The rabbis of old knew how to set priorities and count their blessings when they praised God "for having poured out His wrath on sticks and stones," rather than taking lives.

But the lesson of Tisha B'Av is that we also weep for sticks and stones.

Today is one day since the destruction of my holy synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, and I weep for the stones and mortar that ascended on high, laden with memories.

The memories crowd each other in my mind, begging for order, for classification. They flood my senses—the touch of the velvet cushions in the women's balcony where I sat with my mother as a toddler; the sound of my father's selichot during the penitential season; the taste of the coveted chocolate lace cookie at Kiddush that you couldn't touch until the rabbi had first recited the blessing on the wine; the smell of the parchment of the ancient Torah scrolls that my father and I and so many Bar Mitzvahs read from; the sight of stained glass windows and looming memorial tablets that we read as children, while roaming the periphery of the synagogue on interminable Yom Kippur afternoons in the too-cold air conditioning.

And what of the pulpit, where, before Rabbi Haskel, his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein delivered his fiery sermons for 50 years? Did he know that the back of the shul wags had given him the sobriquet "Smokin' Joe?" I used to stand there after services as a child, play-acting as a rabbi, practicing giving my own sermons, and imitating Rabbi Joseph.

The reports say that the building may not be able to be saved. It also sounds like the school building next door escaped much of the damage. I pray that at least the school escaped. I pray that smoke did not damage the stage in the auditorium where my sister played Yenta the matchmaker in a Hebrew version of Fiddler on the Roof. Nor even the soda machine in the lunchroom—the one that shot crushed ice into your cup before the soda—where Keith Barany and I used to go to relax after a morning of basketball at Father and Son Minyan. Nor the laboratory in the basement where Harry Fierman taught us science—and how to make yogurt--in the seventh grade. We called him Harry the Fireman behind his back.

My heart goes out for the Max J. Etra Chapel, throbbing epicenter of the daily minyan that is the lifeblood of a synagogue. What would David Hefter say--that nonagenarian of the pince-nez and booming voice, who deposited two crisp dollars daily in the pushka? Or Rudolf Klein, who used to call me "zees panim?" Or the steady stream of Kaddish-sayers, through the years, the decades, the generations, for whom the building was a portal to connect to a loved one who could no longer be touched through mortal channels?

Yes, the Torah scrolls were spared. And there was no loss of life. And, without doubt, this proud synagogue, with its unparalleled leadership, will rebuild. And the time will come for images and stories of optimism and strength.

But not yet. First we must mourn.

Once again, God poured out His wrath on sticks and stones. But one weeps for sticks and stones, for bricks and mortar, and for the memories that held them together.

For thousands of us, whether in Manhattan or spread around the world, Tisha B'Av has come early.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg grew up in Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, where his father served as Ritual Director from 1954-1990. His forthcoming book is Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter (Ktav, July, 2011)

 

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Although my late parents were members of KJ for more than four decades, I davened there for years before marriage and relocation (and many times since), and my children consider it their second shul home, words eluded me when hearing about the fire. Thank you, Moshe Rosenberg, for so beautifully and movingly expressing what KJ means and how those who love it, from near and afar, feel right now. Moreover, his essay is a good response for those who minimized the congregation's grief and trauma by pointing out that the Torah scrolls hadn't been damaged and no one was hurt. Of course, the fire and aftermath could have been a lot worse. Most things can. But the "lesson of Tisha B'Av is that we also weep for sticks and stones," as Mr. Rosenberg put it so well. I weep for the memorial plaques to my parents and so many memories. I wish Rabbi Lookstein, his associate rabbis, the staff, board and all the congregants the strength and unity to overcome this challenge. I'm sure they will, with Hashem's help.

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