Latest Developments: Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

We have more details on tonight’s devastating fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the 167-year-old synagogue building at 60 Norfolk St.

More than 100 firefighters fought the blaze, which broke out just before 7 p.m. It was under control by about 8:50 p.m., but not before ravaging the historic landmark. Thankfully, no one was injured.

A short time ago, we spoke with Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum, who was on the scene to begin assessing the damage to the building. The synagogue was shuttered in 2007. He told us that groups of young people had entered the property in recent weeks. Police have been called on numerous occasions, he said. They apparently set a small fire last Sunday evening (exactly one week ago).  A TLD reader, Paul Power, sent us the photo you see below, showing fire trucks in front of the synagogue Sunday, May 7. Greenbaum said authorities are checking security cameras in the area for evidence that the same kids were on the scene tonight.

Greenbaum said he was scheduled to pay a visit to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the coming week to discuss the future of the building. He was to be accompanied by representatives of the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), which owns the parcel behind the building. CPC has for many years been contemplating a new commercial building on the site. Greenbaum said a development plan for both parcels was to include the renovation of the dilapidated synagogue building.

In 2012, Greenbaum filed a hardship application with the Landmarks Commission, seeking permission to demolish the building. Under pressure from preservation groups, he withdrew the application. Several organizations, including the New York Landmarks Conservancy, have been advocating for a full restoration. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is the oldest synagogue of Russian Jews in this country.  It was built in 1850 as a church.

Earlier tonight, City Council member Margaret Chin was on site to gather information and to assist residents of the Hong Ning senior housing complex, located next door to the synagogue. The elevators were shut down for a time, and there was concern about tenants potentially suffering smoke inhalation, or having to evacuate. Fortunately, they were all okay, and evacuations were not necessary. Chin called the fire “devastating,” and said officials will be “working hard to save the historic landmark.”  Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou also put out a statement tonight, saying she was in close contact with emergency officials and staff members were on Norfolk Street to assist residents with any pressing needs.

Wayne Ho, president and CEO of Chinese American Planning Council was in the lobby of the Hong Ning building, as well (his organization owns the property). He declined to discuss any potential development of the site adjacent to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, except to say that, “many conversations have been taking place.”

It will be tomorrow before Department of Buildings inspectors get their first look inside the badly damaged building. Local preservationists already fear the worst, strongly suspecting that the cherished Jewish sacred site will be condemned and demolished. The now charred and gutted synagogue, of course, sits right in the middle of the Essex Crossing development site. As a vacant parcel, it would be worth many millions.

Last Sunday evening, May 7. Photo by Paul Power.

Last Sunday evening, May 7. Photo by Paul Power.