Our hearts go out to the members and leadership of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, the landmark synagogue on the Upper East Side that suffered serious fire damage this week.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the venerable spiritual leader of the 140-year-old congregation, expressed gratitude that no one was injured in the four-alarm blaze and that, since the synagogue had been under renovation since May, no Torah scrolls were on site.
“I have complete faith our community will respond,” he said. “We will rebuild whatever has been lost, and with God’s help, we will go on.”
The poignant scene on Monday evening, as flames rose through the roof of the 110-year-old building and high into the sky, was a very real reminder that the Jewish people are about to enter an ancient but little-known annual period of mourning known as the Three Weeks, commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and subsequent tragedies.
Starting with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz (July 19 this year) and culminating with Tisha B’Av (the fast of the 9th day of Av, Aug. 9), the Three Weeks are marked by outward signs associated with ritual mourning, from not shaving or cutting one’s hair to foregoing listening to music.
In 2011, it may be difficult for many of us to grieve for the loss of something we never knew, even a Holy Temple, and to read the Book of Lamentations’ verses about a devastated Jerusalem at a time when we are blessed to have a vibrant capital of the Jewish state.
Rabbis and teachers suggest, though, that what we should be lamenting during this period of time is not simply the physical destruction of Temple and Jerusalem. Rather, it is the loss of the collective spirit of the Jewish people, who gathered as one in ancient Jerusalem for the festivals, and the loss of God’s presence, which, according to tradition, resided in the Temple.
For us, thousands of years removed, it is hard to imagine the extent of our loss. But when we witness firsthand the physical damage to a synagogue, especially one as historic as KJ, we are reminded anew of what was, and what, we pray, will be again — a house of prayer and community, dedicated to the holy work of an eternal people.