NYPD Calls Lower East Side Synagogue Fire “Arson”

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

A top NYPD official said today that the devastating fire at the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on Sunday is believed to be arson.

While authorities said yesterday they were reviewing video tape showing three young people running from the scene, they stopped short of suggesting that they were responsible for the fire. The blaze destroyed one of the Lower East Side’s most cherished landmarks.

According to DNAinfo, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said today, “The synagogue fire in the 7th precinct, we do think it’s arson, a purposeful fire.” Boyce added that witnesses have reported seeing people running from the synagogue Sunday night. “We are looking forward to making an arrest in that case,” said Boyce.

The fire department has not yet weighed in on the cause of the fire.

New Photos, Investigation Details: Fire Destroys Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

beth hamedrash hagadol 5/16

We just returned from Norfolk Street, where city inspectors are trying to determine the next steps in the aftermath of Sunday night’s horrible fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

Staff from the Department of Buildings are on the scene, along with the fire marshal and Mendel Greenbaum, rabbi of the historic Lower East Side synagogue. A search of the basement has taken place (it was not burned), but going inside what’s left of the main level has been impossible. “No way we can search the first floor, with what collapsed on top of it,” Manhattan Borough Commander Roger Sakowich told Channel 2 yesterday.

Last night, Yehuda Oshry (son of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s legendary former rabbi) told us fire officials are evaluating whether the remaining walls need to be taken down immediately for safety reasons. This morning, Greenbaum said no decisions have been made because the fire department and buildings department are still figuring out how to access the building interior. Yesterday the Department of Buildings took the routine step of issuing a full vacate order until a structural stability inspection is conducted.

Meanwhile, investigators are still looking over videotape showing three people running in the vicinity of the synagogue Sunday night. It isn’t known whether they were inside the building, where the fire was almost certainly set. Local resident Rich Caplan said his wife saw someone jumping over the fence “They didn’t look around to case the joint, they just jumped over the fence, went up through the windows that’s on the side of the synagogue and that was it,” Caplan told Channel 2.

One issue to be determined: the fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s status as a city landmark (a designation it has held since 1967). Today, Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson Sonia Edghill tells us,  “The Department of Buildings is investigating the condition and LPC will be coordinating closely with DOB to determine the stability of the remaining fabric.  LPC will not take any steps on the status of the designation until the investigation is completed.  Any potential changes to the designation status of the property would require review by the full Commission at a public hearing.”

More photos from the scene today:

beth hamedrash hagadol 5/16 front closeup

beth hamedrash hagadol 5/16 facade


beth hamedrash hagadol 5/16 back view

Gotham Organization Identified as Development Partner For Synagogue Site

beth hamedrash monday afternoon

We have just heard back from the Landmarks Preservation Commission after asking some questions this morning about the fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

Following last night’s devastating fire at 60 Norfolk St., officials from several agencies were on site today to conduct investigations. LPC spokesperson Sonia Edghill tells us that representatives of the commission met on the Lower East Side today with the property owner and officials with the Department of Buildings (DOB).

DOB and the Fire Department are conducting separate investigations. The owner’s engineer was also expected to inspect what’s left of the building today. A decision on its status as a city landmark has not yet been made, although the outcome seems fairly obvious judging from the gaping hole in the center of the building.

Last night, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum told us he was previously scheduled to meet with LPC officials this week about a restoration and redevelopment plan for the site. It was to be a collaboration between the synagogue and the Chinese American Planning Council, which owns a parcel behind the synagogue.

Edghill confirmed this, saying, “The meeting on Wednesday was to discuss the restoration and redevelopment of the property in connection with a development with the adjacent building owner, the Chinese American Planning Council and the developer Gotham.” She added, “LPC staff has been meeting with the Synagogue for a number of years to help in addressing maintenance issues and to identify and explore ways to achieve restoration and redevelopment of the property.”

The Gotham Organization is probably best known for the large residential and commercial project, Gotham West, on 11th Avenue. It was one of many developers responding to an RFP for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area a few years ago (the firm did not win the contract). You can read more about the company here.

Photos Through the Years: Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

beth hamedrash hagadol historic photo

Here are some of the photos we have collected during the past eight years of covering the plight of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

January 2013.

January 2013.

New York Sun; photo by Heuichel Kim.

New York Sun; photo by Heuichel Kim.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

60 norfolk interior fall 2012 (2)

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

60 norfolk interior fall 2012 (5)

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

60 norfolk street

Midday Update: Fire Destroys Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Photo: Lonnie Duka.

Photo: Lonnie Duka.

Here’s a midday update on the fire that destroyed Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, one of the Lower East Side’s most cherished Jewish historic sites.

Investigators are still sifting through the ashes of the synagogue to determine how last night’s fire at 60 Norfolk St. started. Channel 4 reported:

Authorities believe the fire started from within the historic Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, though how, and precisely where, remains under investigation. Fire marshals began conducting a ground search at the synagogue on Norfolk Street Monday, about 12 hours after the three-alarm blaze tore through the 19th century structure.

DNAinfo reported that police are reviewing surveillance footage showing three young people running from the area Sunday night, but “it is still unknown whether they were fleeing the historic synagogue and it is too early to say whether criminality was involved in the massive blaze.”

According to the New York Post, a witness told fire investigators he saw three people running from the synagogue. ATF agents were on site today. “Somehow this fire started in a building that isn’t being used. So we’re going to investigate further,” said FDNY Manhattan Borough Commander Roger Sakowich.

Officials with the Landmarks Preservation Commission were on the scene this morning. In 1967, the synagogue’s legendary spiritual leader, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, led a successful effort to designate the Gothic Revival structure as a New York City landmark. It was shuttered in 2007 after years of neglect. While the current rabbi, Mendl Greenbaum, considered demolishing the structure, he relented in 2013, agreeing to work with local preservationists for an alternative to demolition.

One organization involved in those efforts is the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Earlier today, we spoke with Colleen Heemeyer, manager of grants and technical services. She said that the conservancy has had no contact with the synagogue’s leadership since 2014 and 2015, when there was talk of renovating the building and using it for some type of commercial facility. The Landmarks Conservancy awarded Beth Hamedrash Hagadol a $14,000 grant in 2013 for a structural study of the building. Asked for her response to last night’s fire, Heemeyer said, “The loss of a landmark is always tragic. The impact on the community is tragic, especially when a community is losing part of its local fabric.”

We also contacted Joyce Mendelsohn from Friends of the Lower East Side (a preservation group). She’s also author of Lower East Side: Remembered & Revisited. She made reference to our report last night that neighborhood youths have been seen going in and out of the building in recent weeks and to a prevailing point of view in the community: that this fire seems awfully suspicious. Here’s what Mendelsohn had to say:

The destruction of  Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue is a devastating loss to the Jewish heritage of the Lower East Side.  Erected as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church in 1850, the building was acquired and remodeled as a synagogue in 1888.  It was the nation’s oldest Orthodox Jewish Russian congregation founded in 1852  and  stood as a tangible reminder of the hundreds of  thousands of Jewish immigrants – fleeing programs and economic deprivation – who found justice and opportunity in America on the streets of the Lower East Side. Accident or hate crime?  It is easy to place the blame on the carelessness of  neighborhood youth, but there may have been a darker motive.  Could the fire have been deliberately set to clear the site for redevelopment with vast profits as luxury housing?

Over the years, we have covered the plight of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.  Here’s an excerpt from our January 2014 story:

(In the spring of 2013) the New York Landmarks Conservancy conducted an engineering study to assess the building’s condition.  A draft report was completed during the summer, according to Ann Friedman, director of the conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program. The initial inspection found some structural problems, including a destabilized balcony, collapsing joists and erosion of the space between the roof and one of the building’s walls.  But the evaluation showed that the foundation is secure and that the synagogue’s basic structure has not been compromised.  The interior, however, has been badly damaged from water seeping in from the leaky roof.  The report recommends removal of all plaster (there may be a few salvageable decorative elements) and a complete renovation.  Friedman said the next step is to create a proposed budget for the project.  In the past, preservation experts have estimated restoration costs of at least $3.5 million.  In 2010, the conservancy estimated it would cost about $1 million just to seal the building, a critical step in preventing further flooding and water damage.  Once the report is finalized, it will be forwarded to the Landmarks Commission.

In a recent phone conversation, Rabbi Greenbaum said he remains dedicated to the preservation effort.  “We know we have to act,” he said.  Greenbaum said preliminary talks have taken place involving the developers of Essex Crossing, the large mixed-use project being planned on several parcels surrounding the synagogue.  The hope is that the developers will want to purchase the Norfolk Street property, pay for the restoration of the synagogue and incorporate it into their project as some kind of community center.  Greenbaum said no promises have been made, but Essex Crossing representatives were receptive.  In response to an inquiry from The Lo-Down last fall, a spokesperson for the development team declined to “speculate on any kind of future relationship” with Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

AMNY has more comments today from Rabbi Greenbaum:

Everybody’s in shock… I had to hold on not to collapse… For us, besides a community tragedy, it’s a personal family tragedy as well… (Speaking of more recent preservation efforts, he added:) Originally when the congregation dwindled down, there were no congregants, there was no means…to be able to save our congregation… But then through intervening from some people, good friends, we changed our mind and we were all out to save the building, to save the landmark.


Finally, here’s the 1967 designation report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission:


Morning Photos: Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Destroyed By Fire

Photo by Cindy Maisonave.

Photo by Cindy Maisonave.

Here are the first heartbreaking photos this morning from 60 Norfolk St., the former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue, which was ravaged by fire last night.

As you can see the facade and the entire interior from the 167-year-old city landmark are gone. This morning, fire investigators continue to search for clues revealing how the building caught on fire shortly before 7 p.m.

As we reported late last night, kids have been going in and out of the building in recent weeks. There was a small fire in the synagogue a week ago. Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum told us  authorities are looking at security camera tapes to determine whether the kids may have been on the scene last night. Greenbaum also told us he was scheduled to meet with representatives of the Landmarks Preservation Commission this week about a possible plan to restore the synagogue, which has been empty since 2007. He had been working with the Chinese American Planning Council, which has been seeking to develop a parcel it owns behind the synagogue.

morning fire 1

Today news crews are set up at the corner of Grand Street and Norfolk. Broome Street and Norfolk Street are closed to auto and pedestrian traffic.

We’ll have more throughout the day. The Department of Buildings and Landmarks Commission are expected to make initial assessments of the building today. although it’s apparent this morning that there’s little left to salvage. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has been a New York City landmark since 1967.

morning back of synagogue

news crews

More Images From the Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

bhh fire/richard brennan

The image above and the video below are both from Richard Brennan.

These photos are by Lonnie Duka:

fire/lonnie duka

fire/duka 2

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.

Video & Photos: Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Here are more photos and video from the scene of the huge fire that broke out tonight at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the historicsynagogue at 60 Norfolk St. We’re told that the fire is just about out at this point but not before a great deal of damage was done to the city landmark, which was abandoned several years ago.

This photo is from Rich Caplan:


From Dennis Hollingsworth:


From Linda Jones:


From Lauren Barack:


Breaking: Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue


Firefighters are battling to save what’s left of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the historic synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. You can see and smell the smoke from blocks away on the Lower East Side tonight. It’s a three alarm fire that threatens to completely destroy the city landmark.

The 167-year-old building is one of the most significant Jewish sits on the LES. It was abandoned in 2007. Three years later, , the synagogue filed a hardship application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, seeking permission to demolish its historic home. Due to community pressure, that application was withdrawn.

A smaller fire broke out in the building May 7. Firefighters quickly brought it under control.


IMG_4526 IMG_4531 IMG_4534 IMG_4542 IMG_4544

Followup: Saving Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Endangered Norfolk Street Synagogue

Norfolk St. Synagogue Puts Demolition Plan on Hold

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street.

The Lo-Down has learned this morning that the leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has decided, at least for the moment, to drop its bid to demolish the synagogue’s historic home at 60 Norfolk St.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission was notified on Friday that a hardship application seeking permission to tear down the distressed 1850 building was being put on hold, according to the synagogue’s rabbi, Mandl Greenbaum.

A short time ago, the rabbi told us he and the synagogue’s board of directors had decided to “suspend the application for three months to explore alternatives to demolition.”  Last December, the congregation filed papers with the landmarks board, arguing that there was no choice but to replace the deteriorating building with a new mixed-use complex, including apartments and a ground-floor shul.  Preservation groups have been mobilizing to prevent the move.

Petition Started to Save Norfolk Street Synagogue

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

We continue to follow developments at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the endangered synagogue at 60 Norfolk St.  The synagogue has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the 1850 building, which was protected in 1967.  In January a local preservation organization, Friends of the Lower East Side, urged supporters to contact the commission, urging it to reject demolition. Now the group has started an online petition.   You can find the petition here.

LES Preservationists: Tell the Landmarks Commission to Save Synagogue

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

We’ve been following the plight of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the shuttered synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is weighing a proposal from the synagogue to demolish the building, which was protected in 1967.  Today a local preservation group, Friends of the Lower East Side, is weighing in. Here’s part of the email we received a short time ago:

In recent years, fire, water damage and, especially, a failure to maintain the building have all contributed to the building’s degradation. This seems to be a case of “demolition by neglect,” for which the synagogue should not be rewarded. Currently, efforts are being made for an impartial structural engineering report to assess the condition of the building… It is important for everyone to email the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking that they reject the request for demolition of this landmarked historic building. . Click here to contact LPC.

Rabbi Mandl Greenbaum has told us the only realsitic option at this point is to knock down the building and then construct a new condo complex with a synagogue on the ground floor. Sustained efforts to raise money to restore the synagogue or find a developer willing to restore the building failed, he said.


Followup: Norfolk Street Synagogue’s Last Stand?

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street.

Shortly before the December holidays we broke the news that the leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a New York City landmark since 1967, was seeking permission to demolish its 163-year old building on the Lower East Side.  The synagogue at 60 Norfolk Street has been closed for five years, the victim of a violent summer storm, fire and neglect.  Since our initial story, we have spoken with many people who have been involved over the years in efforts to save the building, including the rabbi now advancing a plan to replace the synagogue with a new, modern residential tower and religious center.

We first interviewed Rabbi Mandl Greenbaum last summer, as he was making a final plea to developers to refurbish the building, creating residences or an events center, with room for the synagogue in a portion of the facility.  In a more recent conversation, he explained that these efforts had failed and the synagogue was pursuing what he believes is the only realistic option.   On December 21, lawyers representing the congregation, filed a “hardship application” with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a required step anytime the owner of a protected building plans demolition.  In place of the 1850 Gothic Revival structure, Greenbaum envisions a 45,000 square foot condo building with room for a small shul and a museum on the ground floor.