After major fire, N.Y. synagogue looks to rebuild, keep spirits up

NEW YORK — After a devastating fire ripped through Manhattan's Central Synagogue last Friday, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein stood in the crippled building surveying the damage.

Rubinstein, who served as spiritual leader of San Mateo's Peninsula Temple Beth El from 1982 to 1991, said the blackened site reminded him of a picture taken after Kristallnacht — the night 60 years ago when Nazis burned and plundered Jewish property.

The floor of the 126-year-old Moorish sanctuary was covered with ashes and debris. Huge twisted metal — once scaffolding for workers doing renovations — was propped up in corners like bizarre postmodern art pieces.

Once-handsome wooden pews were charred. The smell of smoke hung as workers carted barrels of debris, including large pieces of charred wood, to metal bins.

Most of the roof was destroyed, with only a skeletal piece remaining over the westernmost section of the building. Officials said repairs will cost many millions and take several years.

Hundreds of damaged prayerbooks were gathered by volunteers and placed in clear plastic garbage bags for a Sept. 13 burial in a ritual ceremony at a Queens cemetery. Others were rescued and meticulously cleaned.

Despite feeling overwhelmed, Rubinstein was not daunted.

"I have no doubt we will return it to its original pristine condition," he said.

Coming only a few weeks before the High Holy Days, the roaring five-alarm blaze — which authorities believe was an accident started by a blowtorch being used during renovations — forced the historic Reform synagogue to scramble for a new space to accommodate the anticipated 5,000 New Year's worshippers.

On Wednesday, New York Gov. George Pataki declared a state of emergency to allow the congregation to use the Park Avenue Armory for the High Holy Days. The governor's order suspends state laws that otherwise prevent the use of the armory for religious purposes.

In addition to help from city officials, religious leaders have also been of great help, Rubinstein said.

He said among the first on the scene were several Christian colleagues from nearby churches, including Cardinal John O'Connor, as well as fellow rabbis.

"They were my source of strength as I watched the building burn," said Rubinstein, who was in the synagogue's Community House across the street when the fire broke out shortly after 5 p.m.

The rabbi said that looking at the damaged building this week is "heartbreaking and hopeful."

The heartbreak comes from "the mass of devastation and destruction of a building that holds so many memories for so many people," he said. The hope comes "because so much of the structure is standing. The ark has been relatively unscarred as though protected; I believe it was protected."

Monday was a day of mixed feelings as congregants returning from vacation or a weekend in the Hamptons stopped by the synagogue on East 55th Street to see the damage.

"It's worse than I thought," said Marilyn Alper, a board member, after looking inside the sandstone structure — a city and national landmark that has been dubbed the oldest continuous-use synagogue in New York.

The blaze burned for three hours while firefighters worked feverishly to save the dozens of stained-glass windows and hand-crafted colored pillars from destruction. No one was killed or seriously injured in the fire, leading Rubinstein to say that "this is a great trauma, it is not a tragedy."

The synagogue was built in 1872 and designed by Henry Fernbach, one of the first Jewish architects in America. With its banded arches and prominent twin 122-foot minaret towers topped by bronze onion domes, the building was considered a showcase of the Spanish Moorish Revival architecture.

Most of the damage was caused after the roof was destroyed and several large beams collapsed, with some crashing to the floor.

Water damage also was extensive as firefighters pumped thousands of gallons into the sanctuary.

Marred were some of the beautiful hand-stenciled blue and red walls. While the main floor was a mess, it appeared that the balcony was mostly spared, with its stained-glass windows shedding some light on the gloomy scene below. The synagogue's archives and collection of Judaica also survived, having been removed for the earlier renovation.

Current plans call for a cover to be put over the entire building within a few weeks to protect the interior, Rubinstein said.

The synagogue is fully insured for the damage, but officials are also considering a lawsuit against Turner Construction, the general contractor whose workmen apparently caused the blaze while installing an air-conditioning system.

In addition, congregants will be approached to help defray costs, according to Rubinstein.

"Sadly Jews are experts at rebuilding," he said. But again sounding a note of optimism, he referred to the the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed 2,584 years ago and rebuilt some seven decades later.

"This," he said, "will not take 60 years."