This is a time of year when Jews are expected to think back and lament the flames that ravaged its two holy temples in Jerusalem. The three weeks that began on July 19th, the 17th of Tamuz, and will culminate on the 9th of Av, mark the period between the breaching of the city walls of Jerusalem and the ultimate destruction of the Temple.
One might expect that this period would have particular resonance for me this year as I think about the recent four-alarm fire that ravaged Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan–the synagogue that my family has been a part of for over a hundred years, the synagogue in which my daughters sat on countless holidays alongside their mother, their grandmother and their great grandmother, the synagogue in which two of my grandsons had their brises (circumcision), where my daughters and five granddaughters were named, where my bar mitzvah was celebrated, where my parents and grandparents were married, and where my uncle, my grandfather and my great-great grandfather served as rabbis.
And yet, as I think about the fire that shook our community to its core, my overwhelming emotion, beyond the grief of seeing a 110-year-old landmark with so many memories rendered unusable for at least 1 to 2 years, is pride.
Ours is a unique community.
As I have thought about historical and biblical precedents, it wasn’t the holy temples that came to mind. It was, rather, the burning bush in the Book of Exodus, the bush through which God is revealed to Moses, the bush about which we are told “it was burning with fire, but was not consumed”.
Our community took a blow, but we were not knocked down. The morning after the fire, while it was still smoldering, we gathered—the leaders of the synagogue and of the school it spawned 75 years ago—the Ramaz School—to figure out the next steps and the steps after those. Within hours the community knew that the steady leadership, both religious and lay, that has been its trademark for as long as anyone can remember, was up to the task.
The community understood quickly that our synagogue and school might be in temporary, even makeshift, quarters for some period of time, but that everything that our congregation and school stand for hadn’t even been tarnished.
From our rabbi’s first public statements thanking the FDNY and the NYPD for their heroism and professionalism—it would appear that they literally saved our 110 year old structure—it was clear that we as Americans are ever conscious and appreciative of the society in which we’re free to be Modern Orthodox Jews.
Ours is a synagogue in which our Sabbath services include a reading of the names of American soldiers who may have been killed during the preceding week. That will not change regardless of where we hold our services. Ours is a synagogue in which its rabbis are not afraid of taking bold religious positions that might not be what everyone in the wider Orthodox community necessarily wants to hear. T
That will not change regardless of what building their pulpits might be in. Ours is a school that cares about the indigent in our society and is always searching for ways to teach our children to offer a helping hand. That will not change regardless of where our classrooms might be this fall. Ours is a school that believes in religious and general coeducation of uncompromising excellence. That will not change regardless of what building our children will be taught in.
Ours is a community that has been a religious and educational epicenter for generations. Our children come back to KJ and Ramaz, not because of a building, though it was and, hopefully, will once again be quite beautiful. They come back as we did because of all that it stands for. They come back because our rabbi has taught us repeatedly in response to whatever local or international crisis may confront us, we are our brother’s keepers. No fire can destroy that.
And so, like the burning bush, our building burned but our congregation and community were not consumed. Our community is resolute not so much because we hope to rebuild what was destroyed but because we hope to maintain and strengthen for generations to come what no fire could consume.