Bigger, safer, more accessible.
A year after a devastating fire severely damaged the main sanctuary of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a prominent Upper East Side Modern Orthodox synagogue, and the Fire Department’s firefighting efforts caused minor water damage at the Ramaz Lower School, the congregation’s adjacent day school, congregants last week heard plans for the synagogue’s imminent rebuilding.
As part of a Mincha-Maariv worship service and community program, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and Kenneth Rochlin, the school’s director of institutional advancement, unveiled an architect’s design that will add two floors to the synagogue building, incorporate government-mandated safety features, and provide easier access for the handicapped.
Preliminary steps on the rebuilding project, which will cost “tens of millions of dollars,” have already started, and the official renovation will begin later this summer, said Rabbi Lookstein, who has served Kehilath Jeshurun since 1958. The sanctuary is to be completed by May 2014, the rabbi said, and renovations on the rest of the building are to be finished by early 2015.
“In retrospect, we were blessed,” Rabbi Lookstein said during last week’s program, which attracted a capacity crowd of 250 in the auditorium of the Ramaz Middle School. “The disaster could have been greater than it was. The synagogue structure remained intact … our sanctuary will be restored to its former beauty and grandeur.”
Kehilath Jeshurun’s plans to build a condominium tower over the synagogue, under consideration early in the previous decade as a source of revenue, were scrapped four years ago when the venture, which ran into stiff neighborhood opposition, was judged financially unfeasible, Rabbi Lookstein said, and were not part of the soon-to-commence rebuilding project.
The two new floors atop the previous five-story synagogue building will house a “naturally lit” gymnasium and classrooms for Ramaz’s early childhood program and elementary school; the synagogue library and chapel will expand into the previous gym’s space in the Ramaz basement.
The fundraising campaign, which is 70 percent complete — the rabbi declined to cite a specific target — will go toward the synagogue’s rebuilding, expansion of the Ramaz Lower School, and strengthening of the school’s endowment fund that supports scholarships and the general operating budget. “This is not just a bricks-and-mortar campaign.
The fire, which Rabbi Lookstein has described as “a disaster but not a tragedy,” probably started on the roof during a long-term renovation project. No one was injured in the four-alarm blaze, and the congregation’s Torah scrolls, off-site during the repairs, were safe. “We are counting our blessings, not mourning,” the rabbi said.
During the last year, the congregation has held weekly prayer services at the Ramaz Middle School across East 85th Street, at the 92nd Street Y and at the Ramaz Upper School on East 78th Street; High Holy Days services last year were held at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services will take place again this year. Ramaz Lower School classes were relocated for a few months in two Upper East Side synagogues, Temple Emanu-El and Park Avenue Synagogue, while renovations on the damaged school were underway.
“It seems like New York became a village dedicated to maintaining the services of KJ and Ramaz,” Rabbi Lookstein said.
He said attendance at services and other synagogue programs has remained at pre-fire levels during the last year, and synagogue membership, a little over 1,000 families, has slightly risen. “The community has cooperated beautifully.”
“We lost a building, not a congregation,” he said.
Since the synagogue’s stone walls did not collapse in the fire, it is possible to rebuild without tearing down the extant remains or gutting the entire interior, Rabbi Lookstein said.
Both the sanctuary, and such parts of the building like bathrooms, will be accessible for disabled persons.
In addition to new heating and cooling systems, the new sanctuary will feature noncombustible steel and concrete building materials instead of wood. The women’s balcony, which will include extra space in the rear for egress, will be expanded in the front to compensate for a lost row of seats. Otherwise, the rabbi says, FXFowle Architects, the Manhattan firm responsible for the site’s renovations, is working to preserve the sanctuary’s previous appearance, of a classical European Ashkenazic synagogue.
Annie Rolland, who is coordinating the renovation project, has extensive architectural experience with houses of worship and funeral chapels. Because the building is being rebuilt, not just “refurbished,” it is subject to more stringent safety codes, she said.
“The fire presented us with an opportunity” to build “a much safer and more comfortable shul,” Rabbi Lookstein said.
Kehilath Jeshurun opened on its present site early in the 20th century.
Many of the changes in the renovated building will not be instantly noticeable; the sanctuary itself, the rabbi said, “will look exactly like the old synagogue looked.”
“We’re hoping,” said Rolland, “it will look like it did the day it opened.”