Taking Sanctuary
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Taking Sanctuary

This Yom Kippur, the Wrightman family of White Plains is being driven by misfortune.
Jeffrey Wrightman and his wife have always walked to synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, as have their 16-year-old twin daughters. But this year, with the White Plains synagogue they have called home for the past 10 years ravaged by fire, they had the choice of either riding six miles to services or staying home.
"It was more important for us to be with the community rather than not to drive," said Wrightman, whose family occasionally has ridden to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah. "It was a very painful decision to have to make. But I cannot envision Yom Kippur and not being with the congregation because it is so much a part of our lives."
An electrical fire on Sept. 9 destroyed the older portion of the Bet Am Shalom synagogue that was built in the 1920s. The rest of the synagogue, erected in 1989, sustained water and smoke damage.
Although the 415-family Reconstructionist congregation has always held High Holy Days services in a tent beside its Soundview Avenue building, synagogue leaders decided that was not practical this year.
"While sentimentally we would have loved to put up the tent, we have no plumbing, there would have been no place for the children, and to put ourselves in close proximity to our ruined synagogue would have been perhaps inviting injury," said Victoria Free Presser, the synagogue’s president.
As a result, services will be held at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. On Saturday, the first day of Rosh HaShanah, the congregation will use the 1,300-seat auditorium.
But the auditorium is being used Sunday night for an Englebert Humperdinck concert, so the congregation will hold Rosh HaShanah services on the second day in a 700-seat auditorium in the same building, according to Rabbi Lester Bronstein, the congregation’s spiritual leader. Yom Kippur services will move back into the larger auditorium.
"The reason I took it is because it is beautiful and nice," said the rabbi. "It will be luxurious and great, but it will not be like home. … The community is both sad that we canít be in our usual tent but glad that we are all together."
Although he said he knows some members of his congregation will not join him for the High Holy Days because the distance is too great to walk to services, Rabbi Bronstein said he had no other choice.
"I had to get my community together: they need each other," he explained. "And there is no space around here that is big enough for us. … We’re using the best thing available to us."
The rabbi noted that the Reconstructionist movement is philosophically liberal and traditional in practice. The movement does not take a position about driving on the Sabbath and holidays, he said.
Since the fire, Sabbath services have been held in the gym of neighboring Temple Israel Center. Selichot services last Saturday night were held at the Assembly of God Church adjacent to the fire-damaged synagogue, according to Fred Mehlman, the congregation’s financial vice president. Hebrew school classes have been held at the Solomon Schechter School in White Plains, he said.
Mehlman has been using e-mails to inform congregants about the changing venues, as well as a private Web site. Members without a computer have been paired with someone who has one.
Sabbath and High Holy Day prayerbooks were stored in the new part of the synagogue and escaped the fire largely unscathed. Mehlman said some sustained smoke and water damage and that a book restoration company is working to salvage them.
"Firefighters put tarp over the bookcases and were able to save some books housed in the old wing," he said.
The old wing housed the rabbi’s study and administrative offices, a small sanctuary and the caretakerís apartment, in which the electrical fire is believed to have started. Presser said the caretaker and his family lost everything and are now living in a nearby apartment.
Mehlman said that as a board member, he had spent a "fair amount of time in the synagogue, and seeing it burn was difficult."
"Not going to be able to go into a place I had felt was a second home is difficult, but our congregation will carry on," he said. "We want to thank our neighbors in White Plains and the entire Westchester community for all it has done for us. It is a remarkable community."
Presser said it is hoped that in six to 10 months the new portion of the building can be reopened. A restoration company is removing the ceiling tiles, ripping up the flooring and repairing other areas that sustained water and smoke damage.
"We’re exploring various options to get back up and operating," she said. "We want to camp out in the new section if we can get all the utilities running. The plumbing, electricity and heat were all in the old section" that was destroyed.
Presser said the congregation plans not only to rebuild the old section but to continue the $5 million capital campaign started earlier this year to construct a wing that will contain a sanctuary. A multi-purpose room in the new section had been used for religious services, but the growing congregation found it needed more room to accommodate those who wanted to participate in its many activities.
"We feel very strongly that we have to go forward with the rebuilding and the expansion," she said.
A fund has been established to help the synagogue rebuild. Checks may be sent to Bet Am Shalom Synagogue, Fire Emergency Fund, 295 Soundview Ave., White Plains, NY 10606.

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