‘Catastrophe, But Not A Tragedy’

After devastating fire, historic Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun committed to rebuild.

07/13/11
Staff Writer
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Alexandra Joseph Rabbani, manager of a baked goods company who lives on the Upper East Side, was on her way to a workout in Manhattan Tuesday morning when she decided to stop at the block of East 85th Street between Lexington and Park.

For the better part of an hour she stood on the street across from the historic Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, her lifelong synagogue and a landmark in the community, which had suffered a devastating fire the previous night.

As a fire engine pulled up and the smell of smoke remained in the air, Rabbani, 32, prayed silently, then spoke with some friends gathered around her, fellow congregants of the Modern Orthodox synagogue founded in 1872.

“I had to detour. I had to pay homage” to the building whose roof collapsed and upper floors suffered heavy damage in the four-alarm blaze, she said. “This is my home. I grew up in that building.”

Within hours of the fire, members and former members were calling each other and exchanging messages online, Rabbani said. “Facebook was buzzing. Everyone was in shock.”

Kehilath Jeshurun (known widely as KJ) is “a home for so many,” she said. “It’s the center of a very tight community of people.”

The synagogue is closely affiliated with the Ramaz School, on the same block.

No one was injured in the fire, and few physical objects were damaged in the synagogue, which was largely empty since the start of a $4 million renovation project in early May.

The last major event in the building was a simcha, the May 1 wedding of Josh Lookstein, son of the synagogue’s senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, and a former member of the congregation’s rabbinical staff, the fourth generation of Looksteins to serve in the KJ pulpit.

Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies (known by his initials as the Ramaz) was rabbi of the congregation from 1906 until his death in 1936. He was succeeded by his grandson, Joseph Lookstein, who led the congregation from 1936 until he died in 1979. Haskel Lookstein, who began as assistant rabbi of KJ in 1958, has been senior rabbi since his father’s death.

The synagogue, with more than 1,100 member families, has occupied its current site for more than a century.

The adjacent lower school of the synagogue’s Ramaz day school suffered minor water damage from the Fire Department’s firefighting efforts, according to Rabbi Lookstein.

The fire probably started on the roof, and most likely was an accident, he said. “There is no reason” to suspect arson or any cause “out of the ordinary.

“It’s a catastrophe, but not a tragedy,” the rabbi said Tuesday, between sympathy phone calls in his temporary office in the Ramaz middle school, across the street from the burnt ruins of his synagogue. From his office, the charred floors of the synagogue building were visible through the round holes of shattered stained-glass windows. From ground level, where a crowd of onlookers photographed the damage and described the scene on their cell phones to friends Tuesday morning, the sky was visible through the now-empty frames.

“The shul is pretty much destroyed, but the community isn’t – that’s the most important thing,” Rabbi Lookstein said. “Thank God, no one was injured. Buildings can always be rebuilt.”

“There has been an outpouring of support from the KJ/Ramaz community and beyond, and for that we are grateful,” the rabbi said in an email message Tuesday. “This will be a lengthy rebuilding process; one that we believe will allow us to demonstrate the strength of our community. We firmly believe, as my father of blessed memory would say, that ‘Out of the ashes of destruction will come the seeds for reconstruction.’”

Renovations on the synagogue – including a reinforcement of its 110-year-old floor, and a general refurbishing of the interior – were to be completed in time for the High Holy Days in September. It was too early this week to determine what type of rebuilding of the structure will take place or when it will start, the rabbi said, adding that the congregation is heavily insured for such damage.

“We have a much bigger renovation [than previously planned] to do,” Rabbi Lookstein said. “We will have to start from scratch We’ll rebuild, with God’s help.”

Short-term, the synagogue’s activities are not affected – worship services and lectures this summer take place in the middle school building. Long-term, Kehilath Jeshurun will have to find a space to accommodate the larger crowds required when vacationers return in the fall and Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services fill the 965-seat sanctuary to capacity.

It is hoped that classes will be in place for the fall semester at the Ramaz School.

Kehilath Jeshurun has long ranked as one of the most prominent synagogues in the city, fostering a strong sense of community through its day school and outreach to the wider Jewish community.

“A great school, a great synagogue,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

Founded as Anshe Jeshurun of Yorkville in 1872, the synagogue was incorporated as Kehilath Jeshurun in 1878. Its first site, on East 82 Street, was dedicated in 1884, followed by its present Renaissance Revival building in 1901.

Members of the congregation and of the wider community offered their help the night of the fire and in subsequent days. The morning after the fire, hundreds of phone calls and email messages of support came into the synagogue office, and Rabbi Lookstein, fighting tears, fielded calls from across the country and from Israel.

“When I heard about the fire, I immediately went to the shul,” said John S. Ruskay executive vice president & CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. “KJ and the Lookstein family have been towering figures in the New York Jewish community for decades. This is a resilient, caring, and deeply committed congregation, one that has stood by others in times of need. I wanted to be present to reflect the concern and solidarity of the leadership of UJA-Federation and the entire community.”

Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, spiritual leader of Central Synagogue, a prominent Upper East Side Reform temple whose building was heavily damaged in a 1998 fire, contacted Kehilath Jeshurun to offer moral support. “When anyone in our community hurts, we all hurt,” Rabbi Rubinstein said. “We’re all family.”

This week’s fire “is eerily similar to what happened to us,” Rabbi Rubinstein, on vacation this week, said in a telephone interview. “Summer, reconstruction, Torahs were out.” The fire at his congregation also broke out when the building was undergoing renovations and most of its interior was empty.

Rabbi Rubinstein said his congregation, which offered use of its facilities to Kehilath Jeshurun, was rebuilt by 2001 and emerged stronger from the fire, with a new “spiritual” vision.

“In every measurable way we’re stronger than we were at that time. We have a stronger sense of purpose.”

“Jews wander. [Kehilath Jeshurun] will need to for a while,” Rabbi Rubinstein said, the message he gave to the KJ family.

Rabbi Lookstein said he will console congregants in the weeks ahead by suggesting they focus not on why the fire happened, but on what they should do in response – how they should strengthen themselves and the synagogue community.

Callers to the synagogue this week included prominent rabbis, and government officials from the United States and Israel. To a remark from Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky that the new rebuilding project will add to Rabbi Lookstein’s responsibilities, the rabbi said, “God wanted to give me an extra job.”

The rabbi noted one particular call, from a former congregant in Florida who became a quadriplegic after a swimming accident 21 years ago, “He was on the phone crying,” offering help, Rabbi Lookstein said.

The former congregant, who has rebuilt his life and gives inspirational speeches to other paralyzed people, helped inspire the rabbi’s resolve to rebuild his synagogue, he said as he prepared to lead a service with Cantor Mayer Davis outside the building on Tuesday afternoon, including the recitation of Psalms.

The fire first was reported to 911 by a Ramaz security guard.

Rabbi Lookstein, returning from a shiva call in Riverdale, received a call from a synagogue official who advised him to “come immediately to 85th and Lexington,” offering no reason.

The rabbi suspected “God forbid, a personal tragedy in the family or in the community.”

Upon seeing the fire, Rabbi Lookstein recited the “Dayan HaEmet” [Blessed in God, the true judge] prayer that a traditional Jew says when hearing of a death or some other very bad news.

The first event already scheduled at Kehilath Jeshurun this week was a Wednesday night workshop on the Three Weeks, the semi-mourning period that begins with the Fast of 17th Tammuz next Tuesday and ends with the Tisha b’Av fast on Aug. 9, commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Next week’s sunup-to-sundown fast marks the beginning of the fall of the Second Temple to the Romans 2,000 years ago.

The yahrzeit of Rabbi Lookstein’s father, Joseph, the previous spiritual leader of Kehilath Jeshurun, also falls in Tammuz.

“It’s not a good month,” Rabbi Lookstein said.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, who serves as Jewish Chaplain for the Fire Department, assisted at the fire scene Monday night. “It was remarkable to see the heroism” of the firemen, he said. Several, recognizing him, came up to ask “Is everyone safe? Where are the Torahs?”

“Miraculously, all the Torahs and the pews were out,” Rabbi Potasnik said.

Haskel Rabbani, Alexandra’s husband, rushed to Kehilath Jeshurun Monday night as a member of the Hatzola volunteer ambulance service.

The next morning, he attended the synagogue’s shacharit services in the Ramaz middle school. “He came b’davka [specifically] for this,” to show support, Alexandra said.

Shacharit Tuesday morning was more crowded than usual.

Alexandra said her husband told her that prayers that morning were very emotional. “Everyone was crying,” she said. “The rabbi was crying.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

07/19/2011 - 06:14

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Dear KJ,
My home-town synagogue in NJ had a fire that took 10 fire depts. & about 12 hrs to put out, back in 2006, one month before the high holidays. It was awful, so I know what you're going through.
We rebuilt, & though I miss the old sanctuary for nostalgic reasons, the building we have now is much better.
You will rebuild as well, I'm positive of that.

Very sad to lose this historic building for those that valued its meaning.However,it is merely a building not a human life and some perspective is in order.Baruch Dayan Emet may be going a bit further than is appropriate. I sympathize with the rabbi's personal sense of loss,but as a leader he would be best served by educating his congregants about life's priorities.

A good title. The loss of a synagogue, while sad, pales in comparison to the murder of Leiby Kletzy.

Buildings can be rebuilt, and even new Torah scrolls could have been written if need be.

But the loss of a child, to such horrible circumstances, that, is a true tragedy for both the family and the wider Jewish community.

Dear Members of KJ,
This is so sad....but I know that you will rebuild and continue the legacy of your remarkable shul and its history... under the leadership of my dear colleague Rabbi Lookstein.

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