Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side is a neighborhood of towering rents, but the Orthodox Ramaz School is using 18,000 square feet of Reform Temple Emanu-El’s space for a cool $1 for two months.
Homeless after the July 11 fire in the 85th Street building that houses both Ramaz and its parent synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun, the school’s first through fourth graders will study through October in the classrooms normally occupied by Temple Emanu-El’s afternoon Hebrew School, in the synagogue building at 65th Street and Fifth Avenue.
It’s a coming together of giants in the world of New York Jewry, where elite East Side synagogues — Mayor Michael Bloomberg attends Temple Emanu-El — share a neighborhood, a faith and considerable cachet, but affiliate with different denominations.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that unified the community,” said Beryl Chernov, the executive director of the Park Avenue Synagogue on East 87th Street, which will host Ramaz’s nursery school, also rent-free. “We’re delighted to have them as our guests and we want to make them feel at home.”
The fire prompted a flood of offers from religious institutions across the area, including the Catholic Archdiocese, to help, said Kenneth Rochlin, Ramaz’s director of institutional advancement. The school considered any space offered and inspected.
For the purposes of housing the displaced students, the synagogues were the best match because they were nearby and had facilities that met the legal requirements for spaces serving children, he said.
The arrangement could provide the basis for an ongoing relationship between Ramaz and Temple Emanu-El, who have never worked together before, said Mark Weisstuch, Emanu-El’s administrative vice president.
“It’s this whole feeling of achdut [unity],” Rochlin said. “It’s bringing together Orthodox, Reform and Conservative institutions to do something so important, educating our children and making sure we don’t miss a beat.”
Other schools have shared space across denominations in the wake of a disaster, said Scott Goldberg, director of Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, citing a Conservative synagogue in Houston that took in Orthodox students after Hurricane Ike.
Also, the economic downturn has inspired many financially struggling congregations to make cross-denominational and even interfaith business arrangements, in which one congregation rents space from another, said Rabbi David Fine, a consultant in the Reform movement who helps synagogues work together and sometimes merge.
While Ramaz will not pay any actual rent, it is responsible for any extra costs the host synagogues may incur, such as security, air conditioning or cleaning.
The students will eat catered kosher food at lunch and snack times.
The school’s parents and children are relieved and anxious about the change and accompanying logistical challenges, said Erica Schwartz, whose four daughters attend Ramaz. The youngest is sad she won’t yet be going to school in the same building with her older sisters.
“Everyone feels very grateful that these two synagogues made themselves available on such short notice,” said Schwartz, who lives around the corner from Ramaz and is a former columnist for The Jewish Week. “It could have been a lot worse. We could have been much further away. They have been unbelievably generous and accommodating. We’re a lot of people. We’re a lot of institution.”