‘We Are Going To Reconstruct’
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‘We Are Going To Reconstruct’

It was a different kind of awe.
The spectacular fire that destroyed much of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains Tuesday was being called a ìcommunal tragedyî that has left the 420-family Reconstructionist congregation looking for a place to hold services just two weeks before the start of the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe.
Benjie Ellen Schiller, the congregation’s cantor and wife of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Lester Bronstein, said offers of assistance have come from the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, a neighboring church and other synagogues.
Although the congregation has long held its High Holy Days services in a tent on the grounds, Schiller said that would not be possible this year.
"With a major fire like this, I don’t know how close you can be to the building," she said.
Schiller noted that classrooms, the bathrooms and a ballroom in the building all were used on the High Holy Days.
But Schiller said that despite the fire, which may have started from either a halogen lamp or an electrical short, would not get her congregation down.
"We are Reconstructionists and we are going to reconstruct" the destroyed building, she said.
The fire started on the third-floor caretaker’s apartment, which was inhabited at the time by his wife, infant child and a cousin. They and a secretary escaped uninjured.
Firefighters took more than two hours to bring the blaze under control, but not before it raced through much of the original wooden section of the building, a private house that was built in the mid-1920s. An extension was built in the mid-1950s when the congregation bought the building.
The congregation’s six Torahs were safely removed from the sanctuary, some of them on a stretcher. They were taken to Temple Israel Center of White Plains, a Conservative congregation about 200 yards away.
"We’ve offered them the use of our building for Shabbat [services] for the next couple of weeks," said Neil Zuckerman, the Temple Israel Center’s associate rabbi. "This is a wonderful community and the doors are open all around White Plains for Bet Am Shalom.
"There is never a good time for this to happen, especially now when everybody is in the High Holy Day mode. But this is an extraordinary community and the five synagogues here do a lot of programming and clergy study together."
Joseph Hyman, regional director of UJA-Federation of Westchester, said he also found the community pulling together.
"When something like this happens to one member of the community, it is as if it happened to the whole community," he said. "As much as this was a great loss, we are all thankful that no one was hurt.
"We are all very saddened by this communal tragedy, but there is great hope that in the future we’ll look back and see this as one of our finest moments as a community."
Sheila Friedland, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Conference, the umbrella group for synagogues and Jewish organizations in Westchester, pointed out that Westchester Jewish Community Services, the local mental health agency, has offered counseling services to the congregation.
"They are also going to need prayerbooks and talleisim," she added, as well as school supplies and other items that were believed to have been destroyed in the blaze. "They know they have the support of the entire community."

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