International Survey of Jewish Monuments
Fire Devastates New York's Central Synagogue:

Congregation Set to Rebuild Landmark Structure

by Rebecca Anderson

More than half a year has passed since a blowtorch sparked the accidental fire August 28, 1998 that gutted Central Synagogue in New York - a local and national landmark considered the city's oldest synagogue building in continuous use. Eyewitnesses and television viewers instinctively thought of burning synagogues six decades ago. The ruin left behind looked bombed out.

On August 31, contractors had planned to test a new central air conditioning system, part of a maintenance and renovation program begun four years ago. Instead, on August 29, contractors, art restorers, and structural specialists already involved with the work at the synagoguebegan removing what could be salvaged: the intact wooden doors separating the sanctuary from the lobby; the bimah; original encaustic floor tiles; and the Ark, which sustained water damage but can be restored. "We removed every plaque, and every nail from the roof that could be found in the rubble on the floor," said Executive Director Livia Thompson.

Earlier in the year, before renovation work began in the basement, 95 percent of the synagogue's valuable archives and Judaica had been placed safely in storage. Inspections by the building department, fire department, architects, and engineers determined the structural integrity of the walls during the next few weeks.

"There's a real tension between edifice worship and spiritual worship," Thompson said. "We do not want to be reduced as a congregation to our building. On the other hand our building is very important to us and clearly the fire has brought out how important it is and how bereft people have been." Recovery has already provided discoveries - such as an unknown older stencil design revealed when plaster fell. And they hope to find out more, including the location of the cornerstone laid in 1870, which remains a mystery. Eventually the visits will be open to the public. "We expect to have [the synagogue building] in use by the fall of 2000, even if work remains in progress," she said.

"What our congregation is going through now is a new reflection on the relationship between a congregation - a community - and a building," said Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein, the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue for the past eight years. "We used to define ourselves through a connection to a building that was a shrine. It was not only a sanctuary; a beautiful space, an old space, it meant something in and of itself. And now we're wandering - we don't have our building and how do we define ourselves without that building?"

With structural stabilization assured by the end of 1998, work moved on to the roof and the exterior, the first restoration priorities. Along with the original documentation of the synagogue's construction from 1870-72, the synagogue has a detailed analysis on the pre-fire condition, repaired by Dan Peter Kopple Associates, which has a role now in the recovery. Thompson commissioned the Philadelphia architectural restoration firm four years ago, when preparing for the renovation. Planning for the interior, which is not landmarked, raises important questions of what to rebuild and why, taking into account needs of the clergy and the lay leadership. "The real challenge is to restore a building, and, at the same time, provide for the next century and a half," said Rabbi Rubenstein. "When people walk back inside, they should have a sense of the building that they left. At the same time, the space must meet the present and future worship needs, which are very different from when that building first opened." The synagogue has hired an architect to work with the building and restoration committees, and a spiritual space consultant to conduct focus groups with congregants.

Activities formerly held in the synagogue moved to the community house-a mid-1960s structure itself in need of substantial renovation-forcing other programs to relocate. Area religious institutions stepped in. Alcoholics Anonymous meets at the Sutton Place Synagogue. St. Peter's Church hosts the soup kitchen. Institutions directly supporting rebuilding include the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which provided financial support, and St. Thomas Church, which is organizing a fundraiser later this year. "I never had personally appreciated the important role we play in the community - architecturally, civically," said Thompson. "During this emotionally intense time, the community has offered help at all levels."

Rabbi Rubenstein concurred. "The relationship of the place to the community has been quite significant, both in terms of expressed concern and in donations," he said. "But what emerged to my great surprise was the sense, from many parts of the corporate world, that a religious institution and a building like this is an anchor in the community. It may not be expressed as such over time. But when the building is lost, there's a sense that part of what makes your neighborhood livable has been destroyed." One example was a $25,000 personal donation from Charles A. Heimbold Jr., CEO of Bristol Myers Squibb, which has its headquarters nearby.

By the early spring of 1999, over $13 million had already been raised. "We have close to a thousand donors so far," said Thompson. "The largest dollars are from a few congregants, but the vast majority of contributions are unsolicited from corporations, churches, synagogues, individuals both Jewish and not Jewish." Manhattan lawyer Susan Zinder found herself riveted by the live television coverage of the fire while preparing to go to Friday night services on the Upper West Side. "I had never before seen a synagogue burn," she said, and it reminded her of Germany. She recalled attending Central Synagogue once to say kaddish for a cousin. She knew that her father, who died last June, would have responded with a contribution. "I immediately sent in a check for 18 times his age," she said.

For preservationists, the Central Synagogue fire underlined the persistent need to tackle the conditions that make houses of worship especially susceptible to fire. "I love that building," said A. Robert Jaeger, co-director of the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places, a national clearinghouse for the stewardship of religious properties. "Already 12 years ago I did a story for Inspired magazine in Philadelphia. We learned some pretty astounding things from the head of the fire department here about the number of religious properties that burn in a year. If you extrapolate, we're losing a certain percentage annually--some are rebuilt, some are not. Some are rebuilt well; most are not. It's taking a toll," Jaeger said.

Kenneth Lustbader, director of the Sacred Sites Program at the nonprofit New York Landmarks Conservancy, considers fire the white elephant of preservation. A workshop that the Sacred Sites Program organized last May focused on fire prevention. "Even while pouring money into projects, religious institutions as a whole are not addressing fire prevention proactively," he said. A report on the conference appeared in the November 1988 issue of the program's publication Common Bond that featured Central Synagogue on the cover. Lustbader has received an unprecedented response, from congregations requesting extra copies to magazines seeking to reprint selected text.

"Part of the challenge we're talking about in our restoration committee with the architect is how to commemorate this period in history as we put the building back together," said Rabbi Rubenstein. The community also plans to memorialize the tragedy. "One idea is give the entire congregation the opportunity to literally lay its hands on the building and repaint it," he said. "When a Torah is written you don't have to write the whole scroll, you just have to write one letter - the Torah would not be complete without that one letter. I want to use that as a model for rebuilding. If your hand paints one little part of the stenciling then it's like you've built the whole building. We're also planning to bury some of our prayer books in the sub-basement and commemorate that with a plaque."

That Central Synagogue would be rebuilt was never a question. The fire underscored the particular vulnerability of religious properties to fire - especially during construction work - but it exposed the very positive role that Central Synagogue plays in the local community. It is very much a living monument. People who had never entered the building felt its loss. Central Synagogue discovered it was a community building as well as an internationally acclaimed monument.

"Rarely do you get to see yourself living at a historical moment. And this congregation is now living through a historical moment that in 50 years we'll look back on," said Rabbi Rubenstein. "History is watching and we're aware of it. And the larger religious world is watching us: What do you do, how do you behave during a period when devastation has hit your building? How do you handle yourself, and then how do you reconstruct? How do you memorialize the moment? These are all issues that are before us."


Central Synagogue, 123 East 55th Street, NY, NY 10022 (212) 838-5122

NY Landmarks Conservancy, Sacred Sites Program 141 Fifth Avenue NY, NY 10010, (212) 995-5230

Partners for Sacred Places 1615 Walnut Street, Suite 2310, Philadelphia, PA 19103 (215) 546-1288 Partners has just published Sacred Properties at Risk: New Evidence on How Endangered Older Churches and Synagogues Serve Communities

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last update: 10/29/99