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Demolition Application Filed For Fire Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

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Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

There’s some sad but unsurprising news to report this morning about Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Lower East Side synagogue destroyed in a May 14 fire.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Mendel Greenbaum, has told The Lo-Down that he’s filed an application for demolition with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The commission plans to hold a hearing on the application July 11. The first step, however, is an appearance by building ownership and its engineers at the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 3. That’s scheduled this coming Tuesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. (JASA/Green Residence, 200 East 5th St.)

In a phone interview yesterday, Rabbi Greenbaum said the Department of Buildings is extremely concerned about the stability of the fire ravaged building at 60 Norfolk St. Inspectors have not been able to enter the synagogue, which is filled with rubble. They made their assessment after examining the perimeter of the 167-year-old building.

There’s particular concern about the two towers in the front of the shul. When the roof collapsed during the fire, much of the masonry of the towers was taken out.  The synagogue hired an independent consultant, Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, to conduct an independent study. Greenbaum said the results of that survey are consistent with the Buildings Department’s findings.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission did not respond to our request for information about Beth Hamedrash Hagadol yesterday. We also contacted the Department of Buildings, asking whether any decisions had been made about the fate of 60 Norfolk St. A spokesperson would say only that the investigation is ongoing and that the agency has received no application for demolition.

In December of 2012, Rabbi Greenbaum filed a hardship application with the LPC to demolish the building, which had been closed five years earlier and required millions of dollars in repairs. The vision at that time was to build a new mixed-use building with space for the synagogue on the ground floor.  Several months later, however, he had a change of heart. In March of 2013, the rabbi told us the demolition application was being put on hold. In response to local pleas for preservation, Greenbaum said he would try to find a development partner interested in restoring the building.

The synagogue and the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) were working on a restoration plan that also included building on a site owned by CPC behind the shul. Along with their development partner, the Gotham Organization, they were scheduled to meet with representatives of the Landmarks Commission three days after the fire. The plans have obviously changed dramatically.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was the oldest congregation of Russian Jews in this country.  The building opened in 1850 as a Baptist church (some of its congregants later founded Riverside Church).  The synagogue purchased the building in 1885. The congregation was led by Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York City.  Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, an internationally known scholar and a Holocaust survivor, was spiritual leader of the synagogue for 50 years, before his death in 2003.  Oshry, Greenbaum’s father-in-law, spearheaded a successful campaign in 1967 to designate the synagogue as a city landmark.

Rabbi Greenbaum hopes to establish a small synagogue in the basement of the new building. Those plans are still moving forward. The synagogue site could accommodate a 45,000 square foot building, even before accounting for the neighboring CPC parcel. Greenbaum and members of the Oshry family would like to salvage some part of the synagogue as a memorial to one of the most significant Jewish sites on the Lower East Side.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested in connection with starting the fire. Prosecutors have, at least for the time being, chosen not to press charges. The case is being handled in juvenile court.

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