Sealed off by metal barricades and makeshift wooden walls and yellow emergency tape, the north side of East 85th Street between Lexington and Park is off-limits to pedestrians this week, as the Fire Department inspects the remains of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, which sustained heavy damage in a four-alarm fire last week. Two bright red cranes, towering over the five-story synagogue building, dominate the site.
Across the street in a temporary office in the middle school of the synagogue’s Ramaz day school, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein can look out a window at the scene as he considers the future of the landmark Modern Orthodox congregation and the adjacent Ramaz lower school, which suffered extensive water damage as part of the fire-fighting effort.
While the synagogue’s Shabbat services will continue to be held for at least the next few weeks in the auditorium of the Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz on East 78th Street – including a salute on Saturday to FDNY personnel who battled the fire – temporary accommodations still are to be found to house capacity High Holy Days services in September, and repairs are to start soon on the lower school, Rabbi Lookstein says.
The rabbi was able to make an on-site inspection of both buildings a few days after the fire.
“We have to rebuild the school and renovate the synagogue,” he says. “We need to get both buildings back.” Renovating both buildings at the same time, he adds, makes the process that much more difficult.
The damage to the synagogue (ckj.org) is less extensive than earlier thought, Rabbi Lookstein says. “Miraculously, we were saved by the scaffolding” that had been erected inside the building as part of a $4 million renovation project that began in May. When the roof collapsed last week, the scaffolding protected “the rest of the synagogue,” much of which “seemed solid.”
The lower floors of the eight-story lower school, which contain classrooms, an auditorium and gymnasium, suffered the most damage. The school, the rabbi says, “is not usable now. We hope to be able to complete the repairs” by the time classes resume in September.
“There are scenarios that temporarily would force us out of the Lower School building,” a notice sent to Ramaz families last week stated.
Insurance will cover the repairs at both buildings, Rabbi Lookstein said, adding that “it is too early” to estimate when repairs can begin.
The Fire Department this week continued to seek a definitive cause of the fire, which appeared to be an accident that started on the roof. From his office window and from the 12th floor window of a congregant’s apartment next to Kehilath Jeshurun, Rabbi Lookstein has observed a decrease in the amount of burnt-out debris on the synagogue’s top floor. “Already a lot of debris has been carried away.”
The rabbis and officers from many congregations and other Manhattan Jewish institutions have called Rabbi Lookstein since the fire to offer moral support and space to hold worship services. “Every synagogue on the [Upper] East Side and [Upper] West Side has offered space.”
The rabbi declines to say what site is likely to serve as the congregation’s venue for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services this year, but says a decision will be made soon.
Attendance at Shabbat services last Saturday was about 450 people, “certainly much more than would be expected” on a typical summer day, he says, and attendance at daily minyanim has remained at pre-fire levels. “The mood [of the membership] is great determination and hope. The lay leadership has meticulously been planning every aspect of the rebuilding of the school.”