Renewal, a theme of the High Holy Days, will resonate in particular this year for the congregants of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, which was heavily damaged last month by fire. “I’m going to speak about the lessons one unfortunately takes from a trauma like this,” said Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “I’m going to talk of the vision of rebuilding, something that unfortunately Jews are accustomed to doing. And I’m going to say that just as buildings can be rebuilt, so can lives.”
Rabbi Rubinstein will deliver his sermon to more than 3,000 congregants at the New York State Armory at Park Avenue and 67th Street. The move to the state facility was made possible by Gov. George Pataki, who declared a state of emergency that allowed the congregation to use the site from the eve of Rosh HaShanah on Sept. 20 until Yom Kippur on Sept. 29.
The fire on Aug. 21 was apparently started by a workman’s propane torch while repairs were being made to the Moorish-style synagogue at Lexington Ave. and 55th Street. The landmark building was built between 1870 and 1872 and is the oldest building in continuous use as a synagogue in the city.
Because of the size of the congregation, which now numbers 1,400 households or about 4,000 persons, all members were unable for several decades to gather at the same time in its historic building at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street. As a result, High Holy Days services had to be staggered to accommodate everyone.
But the use of the armory will change that. The rabbi said it is large enough to permit more than 3,000 adult congregants in one service.
“We’ll use microphones and we’re planning on having several video screens,” said the rabbi.
In addition, Rabbi Rubinstein said there will be separate programs and services at another site for children, from newborns to teenagers.
Rabbi Rubinstein said there had been conversations with insurance companies since the fire but that there were no discussions about suing the contractor.
The fire occurred just as work on the synagogue was being completed. The rabbi said the work had been conducted during the two previous summers and was to be finished this weekend. He said there was still no dollar estimate on the amount of damage done to the building. But he said that although the congregation had “good insurance coverage, there is always a difference between what coverage it will pay for, concommitant costs, and our desire to build the building excellently.”
As a result, he said a fund-raising drive has started. He declined to say how much had already been pledged, but he said the congregation hoped to raise several million dollars.
“We hope to rebuild the building and endow it so that it is cared for and maintained in perpetuity,” he said. “We’re dealing with major givers now. We hope that this will be a time to guarantee that it is maintained.”
In the meantime, Rabbi Rubinstein said the congregation is going to have to pay for the rental of chairs for the High Holy Days and that it has already bought new High Holy Days prayer books. Because most of the Sabbath prayer books and Chumashes (Five Books of Moses) were destroyed in the fire, they too will have to be replaced. Rabbi Rubinstein said he plans to bury thousands of destroyed prayer books this Sunday at the Linden Hill Cemetery in Queens.
Monday’s torrential rain soaked the Central Synagogue building because a permanent roof has not been yet been erected, the rabbi noted.
“All the debris from the fire has been removed,” he said. “All the pews and everything else that is removable and restorable has been taken out. We are also removing the tiles from the floor that form a mosaic. The whole sanctuary was tiled and all of the tiles will be saved. But they all have to be removed and then replaced.”
He said that during Monday’s rain, a “mechanism was created to gather as much water as we could and hope we did not suffer further damage. [But] I went in after the rain and it’s wet. But they covered a great part of the building. They can’t put a covering over the top because I’m not sure the arches would hold it. And it’s important to maintain the stability of the upper walls. With the proper shoring we’ll save the upper walls, but the main walls and windows are solid.”
He said work was now being performed to put up scaffolding to hold a temporary roof that will be in place before winter.
The fire has also produced an outpouring of support from area churches and synagogues that have offered Central Synagogue space to hold services. Rabbi Rubinstein said the congregation had accepted the offer of Congregation Emanuel on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street and is holding the installation of its new cantor, Jordan Franzel, in that congregation’s auditorium on Sept. 11.
“We’re two of the oldest and largest Reform synagogues in New York,” he said. “There may be other times that we may accept the hospitality of other neighboring synagogues or churches. That’s the burden and wonder of friendship. We’ve had a glorious and strong relationship with them.”
Rabbi Rubinstein said the fire has acted as a bonding for the congregation. He said that was evident by a larger than normal attendance at Sabbath services last weekend.
“It will draw them together,” he said. “We will learn about our ourselves as a community and see ourselves as we have never done in the past.”