3 years after fire, NYC Central Synagogue to reopen

NEW YORK — Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, spiritual leader of Central Synagogue, budding architect and historian, glanced proudly at the stream of workers putting finishing touches on his shul's $40 million restoration effort.

"Besides my family nothing has occupied me more these past 36 months than working to ensure the well-being of our synagogue and our congregation," said Rubinstein, the former rabbi of Congregation Peninsula Beth El in San Mateo.

It was three years ago that flames engulfed the midtown Manhattan synagogue, badly damaging the 129-year-old architectural landmark.

On Sunday, Rubinstein and his congregants will formally end their three years of wandering when Central Synagogue is expected to reopen. Before Tuesday's attack on New York, they had planned to mark the event with a ceremony featuring speeches by Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Cardinal Edward Egan. Events were to include a Torah procession led by descendants of the synagogue's original builders and this year's confirmation students and the blowing of the shofar by representatives of the city's synagogues.

When Central Synagogue members gather at 55th and Lexington Avenue, they will open not just a newly restored building, said Rubinstein, but a fresh chapter in the Reform congregation's long history.

"We're living in an historical moment both for the synagogue and the congregation," he said. "We have learned a great deal during these past three years, most notably that we are not the equivalent of our building."

Rubinstein plans to make that theme part of his High Holy Days message and to urge congregants to "be clear and definitive about the character and soul" of the sanctuary, which he said "exists to serve us, not the other way around."

He will do so while memories of the 1998 five-alarm fire that began 45 minutes before Friday night services accompany him everywhere, unwelcome reminders of trauma's sudden entry into the life of a community.

Fire broke out in the landmark Moorish-inspired synagogue, apparently caused by a blowtorch as workers installed an air-conditioning system during renovations. As the blaze spread through the temple, Rubinstein ran through the billowing smoke, smashed a glass cabinet and rescued two priceless Torahs, one of which was pieced together from sacred scrolls secreted away by Jews during the Holocaust.

"I remembered handing the Torah to a colleague and asking him to take it to our chapel, so services could begin on time," said the rabbi. "The congregation was in Sabbath prayer even as the fire was being fought because that's part of being a Jew."

The fire originated on the roof, which was destroyed. Much of the damage was caused when several large beams collapsed, including at least one of the trestles that supported the roof. One beam fell on the organ, though some pieces of the instrument had been removed for the renovation. Other beams crashed into the floor. Though the balcony remained intact, the synagogue's plastic walls and much of the rest of the interior were badly damaged.

While some prayerbooks were salvaged, scores more were lost. The synagogue's ark had not been damaged. And its ritual items like Torah scrolls and its century-old archives had been removed for the renovations.

The fire struck roughly a month before the High Holy Days. Services were moved to the Seventh Regiment Armory, at Park Avenue between 66th and 67th streets. And though many members recalled feelings of shock and sadness at the devastation of their shul, some saw it as a blessing in disguise.

For the first time in years, the congregants said, the 4,000 members of the synagogue were able to celebrate the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar under one roof. That intimacy and unity, say Rubinstein and other members, are qualities they want to retain in their new refurbished building.

Judith Youngwood, a member for 22 years who served on the restoration committee, said the congregation grew closer during the past three years. She and Rubinstein point to the fact that despite predictions of losing members during the rebuilding, the synagogue grew by between 300 and 400 households.

The architectural firm of Hardy-Holzman-Pfieffer, whose projects have included the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New Victory Theatre and Radio City Music Hall, spearheaded the rebuilding, which synagogue officials estimated at just under $40 million. Total damage to the building, they say, is closer to $51 million. Meanwhile, the synagogue, which has raised some $24 million from private donations so far, has a $40 million federal lawsuit pending against Turner Construction, Amis Inc. and Aris Roofing. That suit is expected to go to trial sometime in October.

Central Synagogue traces its roots to a congregation founded in 1846 by immigrants from Prague and nearby regions of Bohemia. The congregation worshiped at an old church building at Avenue C and Fourth Street in 1864, before deciding to move uptown a few years later.

The congregation purchased a plot of land at East 55th for $65,000 and hired Henry Fernbach, the first Jew to practice architecture in the United States, to design a house of worship for 2,000 people. The temple, originally known as Ahawath Chesed, changed its name to Central Synagogue in 1920.

Maureen Cogan, 62, a member for 31 years and head of the restoration committee, said the rebuilding of Central Synagogue reflected members desire to restore the shul's original beauty while also embracing elements needed for a modern Jewish community.

A case in point is the synagogue's Torah table that survived the fire. Workers discovered that the table's original wood was lighter than the rest of the interior. Rubinstein said members opted against repainting the table, deciding instead to move it several feet forward and closer to the congregation. The idea, said Rubinstein, Cogan and others, was to create greater intimacy between congregants and the pulpit.

Other features embrace a similar theme. In restoring 148 pews, workers made the first 12 movable for more intimate seating during small services and events. The last three rows and the first two on the north end also are movable and designed for High Holy Day services.

Restoration of the synagogue's stained glass took on the feel of a historic jigsaw puzzle as workers used the surviving 1872 glass to re-create two of the shul's 12 clerestory windows. The remaining 10 were replicated from the original design.

In addition, workers restored three 6-square-foot stained glass lay lights that had been covered for decades. "By installing a new skylight over the bimah, this feature can now be seen as it was originally intended for the first time in 50 years," said Cogan.

The new design includes some 4,000 square feet of encaustic and quarry tile flooring in the foyer and sanctuary with more than 40,000 tiles in a range of colors, patterns and sizes. While workers were able to clean and reinstall existing tiles, more than 30,000 tiles, fabricated by the original 1872 manufacturer in England, replaced damaged or missing tiles.

Michael Wiener, another member of the restoration committee, said other new features including a state-of-the-art sound system, as well as facilities for Internet access and video-streaming will enable Central Synagogue to broadcast events to a much broader audience. He also cited the installation of a portable organ next to the bimah, designed to create greater intimacy and interaction among congregrants. Though the synagogue already had included features to assist disabled congregants, signs in Braille have also been added.

"Our charge was not to turn back the clock but to interpret the past and create a space evocative of the richness and grandeur of the original," said architect Hugh Hardy. "This is complicated work because you are responding to people's memories. When the congregation returns, we want them to be inspired, not overwhelmed, by the splendor of the setting. We want them to feel that they are home again."

Beyond the restoration, members feel immense pride in a congregation that has grown closer and more unified these past three years.

"It isn't just that we made the building more beautiful and magnificent, but that we did it while holding our congregation together and seeing it grow," said Emita Levy, 81, a member for 35 years.

"There is great excitement that in restoring the synagogue to its original grandeur, we discovered something beautiful about ourselves."