After The Fire, Hope Burns

After The Fire, Hope Burns

In the lobby of the Coffey Community Center on Manhattan’s East Side, Judy Klemperer gingerly picked up a black prayerbook from a large pile lying in a laundry bin and wiped off the ashes.

“It’s all wet and warped,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “It won’t be used again.”

She then placed it into a large plastic garbage bag. Someone wrote down the dedication on the inside cover for future reference.

The prayerbook was one of hundreds being placed in clear bags on Monday by a handful of female volunteers, congregants of the historic Central Synagogue located two dozen steps away on East 55th Street.

The damaged books will be buried Sept. 13 at the Linden Hill cemetery in Queens at a ritual ceremony.

The books, including Torahs and other sacred tomes, will in effect serve as a memorial to the devastating fire that ripped through Central Synagogue last Friday, just as the Sabbath was descending, destroying the roof of the 126-year-old Moorish sanctuary and throwing the lives of its 1,400 members into disarray.

But next to the plastic bags were tables piled high with red and blue books that were being rescued. The volunteers were meticulously cleaning them and placing them on a card table marked “cleaned.”

These holy volumes seemed to signify the hope and determination of the congregation to join together and begin the process of rebuilding.

Coming only a few weeks before the High Holy Days, the blaze — which authorities believe was an accident started by a blowtorch from workmen doing renovations — has forced the Reform synagogue to scramble for a new space to accommodate the anticipated 5,000 New Year’s worshipers.

Despite published reports, Rabbi Peter Rubenstein told The Jewish Week that local churches offering space are not being considered because they are not large enough.

The Jewish Week has learned that synagogue officials are considering such venues as The Theatre at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, some Broadway theaters and other concert halls.

“We have people looking into it and making phone calls,” said Rabbi Rubenstein, who has been working virtually nonstop since the fire, dealing with his congregation and board of trustees, planning the future and fielding hundreds of phone calls from the media and Jewish and non-Jewish well-wishers from around the world.

Rabbi Rubenstein is also exploring the possibility of putting up large tents in order to keep the congregation together for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

It would be the first time in years that the membership prayed at the same time; the congregation is so large that High Holy Days services have been staggered to accommodate the overflow.

City officials are helping in the search, as well as the cleanup. Rabbi Rubenstein, who rescued several invaluable Torah scrolls from the sanctuary, specifically noted the aid of the New York City Fire Department and Jerry Hauer, director of the city’s Emergency Management Services (and a member of the Riverdale Jewish Center), who helped with details in the fire’s aftermath.

He said among the first on the scene were several Christian colleagues from nearby churches, including John Cardinal O’Connor, as well as fellow rabbis. “They were my source of strength as I watched the building burn,” the rabbi said.

Rabbi Rubenstein said that looking at the crippled building this week “is heartbreaking and hopeful.”

The heartbreak comes from “the mass of devastation and destruction of a building that holds so many memories for so many people,” he said. Hopeful “because so much of the structure is standing. The ark has been relatively unscarred as though protected; I believe it was protected.”

Indeed, it was a day of mixed feelings as a steady stream of congregants returning from vacation or a weekend in the Hamptons stopped by the community center to see for themselves the damage wreaked upon their house of worship.

“It’s worse than I thought,” said a shaken Marilyn Alper, a board member, after a quick look inside the sandstone structure — a city and national landmark that has been dubbed the oldest continuous-use synagogue in New York.

To a casual observer walking past East 55th Street, the scaffolding surrounding the synagogue makes it look as though the building is undergoing routine renovations, as it had been for months before the fire. The blaze, which caused several million dollars worth of damage, burned for three hours while firefighters worked feverishly to save the dozens of stained-glass windows and handcrafted colored pillars from destruction. No one was killed or seriously injured in the fire.

But inside the building, a reporter getting an eyewitness view on Monday saw a scene that resembled a movie clip of a London building after a World War II bombing raid.

The synagogue was built in 1872 and designed by Henry Fernbach, one of the first Jewish architects in America. With its banded arches and prominent twin 122-foot minaret towers topped by bronze onion domes, the building was considered a showcase of the Spanish Moorish Revival architecture.

But on Monday, Rabbi Rubenstein said the site reminded him of a picture of the aftermath of Kristallnacht, when Germans and Austrians destroyed Jewish property.

The floor of the sanctuary was blackened, covered with ashes and debris. Huge twisted metal — once scaffolding — was propped up in corners like bizarre postmodern art pieces.

Once handsome wooden pews were blackened and burnt, many already destroyed and removed. The smell of smoke hung heavy as workmen in blue T-shirts carted barrels of debris, including large pieces of charred wood, to metal dumpsters.

Most of the roof was destroyed, with only a skeletal section remaining over the westernmost section of the building. It is this section where the ark and pulpit sit, and incredibly they were found in good shape. On Monday huge plastic sheets covered the ark section.

Most of the damage was caused after the roof was destroyed and several large beams collapsed, with some crashing to the floor.

Water damage also was extensive as firefighters pumped thousands of gallons into the sanctuary. Marred were some of the beautiful hand-stenciled blue and red walls. While the main floor was a mess, it appeared that the balcony was mostly spared, with its stained-glass windows shedding some light on the gloomy scene below. The synagogue’s archives and collection of Judaica also survived, having been removed for the earlier renovation.

Current plans call for a cover to be put over the entire building within a few weeks to protect the interior, Rabbi Rubenstein said.

The synagogue is fully insured for the damage, but officials are also considering a lawsuit against Turner Construction, the general contractor whose workmen apparently caused the blaze while installing an air-conditioning system.

Officials said repairs will reach into the millions and take several years. But Rabbi Rubenstein was not daunted.

“I have no doubt we will return it to its original pristine condition,” he said. “Sadly, Jews are experts at rebuilding.”

Referring to the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem 2,584 years ago and rebuilt some seven decades later, Rabbi Rubenstein said, “This will not take 60 years.”

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