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Midday Update: Fire Destroys Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

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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:


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