When a 167-year-old synagogue burned to cinders Sunday, lingering hopes of preserving the old Jewish Lower East Side burned with it.
Beth Hamedrash Hagadol had survived a century and half as the most visible monument to a Jewish community that has its spiritual roots on the crowded blocks between the Bowery and the East River.
Pickle carts and kosher butchers and Torah scribes are mostly gone from the Lower East Side. So, too, is the redbrick facade of the First Romanian-American Congregation, once one of the area’s most visible Jewish landmarks, which collapsed in 2006. Until Sunday night, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was among the last great surviving symbols of the old neighborhood.
This week, the synagogue was on the verge of finalizing a long-sought deal that would have saved its building. Instead, it burned to the ground. The small Jewish community that remains on the Lower East Side is mourning the destroyed synagogue, and closing ranks as the people look for answers about how Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, long derelict, finally burned.
On Sunday evening, as Jews around the world celebrated the holiday of Lag b’Omer by dancing around bonfires, flames shot out through the front windows of the empty sanctuary, sending up a pillar of smoke.
Early the next morning, Stephen Talasnik leaned against the police barricades on Norfolk Street, staring at the husk of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Metal railings twisted by fire snaked up the front steps. Talasnik said that his great-great-grandfather had been a member, and that he had walked by every single day since he moved to the neighborhood.
“A building like this represents community,” Talasnik said. “I know my son will inherit a neighborhood that is completely different.”
Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was a big Gothic Revival building that served first as a Baptist church, then as a Methodist church and then as a synagogue. Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the city’s only chief rabbi, once presided there; so did Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a Holocaust survivor who was a sainted figure among Orthodox Jews.
By 2017, the synagogue was a stranger on its own block, surrounded by construction sites where big-name developers, backed by Goldman Sachs, are now putting up a mega-project with a movie theater and a Trader Joe’s.
As a place of worship, too, its time had passed. Its congregation, aging and poor, couldn’t afford to keep it maintained, and the building has been closed since 2007. In 2011, the city’s Department of Buildings said the building posed “imminent danger to life”; the department ordered it vacated. The building has been through the ringer. A storm in 1997 had smashed its historic windows, and a fire in 2001 damaged the inside. Photographers who entered in recent years brought back photos of a crumbling, damaged space.
Like so many Jewish communal buildings on the Lower East Side, its future has been hotly contested in recent years, as preservationists have fought with developers and the synagogue’s stewards.
.@gigi_nyc BREAKING VIDEO: FDNY battling a 3rd Alarm Fire in a synagogue at 60 Norfolk St in Lower East Side. Heavy fire throughout. pic.twitter.com/B8KmlkE3OW— New York City Alerts (@NYCityAlerts) May 14, 2017
That debate was set to be resolved this week. The synagogue and a local not-for-profit called the Chinese-American Planning Council, Inc., which is an adjacent building and empty lots around the synagogue, had reached an agreement with the development firm Gotham to fund and carry out the renovation of the synagogue. The parties were set to meet with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Wednesday “to discuss the restoration and redevelopment of the property,” according to the commission.
The commission said that it had worked with the synagogue “for a number of years… to explore ways to achieve restoration and redevelopment of the property,” and that the synagogue had been looking for a development partner since 2014.
According to a neighborhood activist who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, the agreement between the synagogue, Gotham and the Chinese-American Planning Council would have resulted in a renovated synagogue building in which the congregation would have the use of a basement prayer space. Further details are unclear. Both sides planned to publicize the deal after the meeting with the landmarks commission.
Now, the fire has mooted those plans.
Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum, who has been responsible for the synagogue since the 2003 death of Oshry, his father-in-law, sounded stunned when he was reached over the phone while standing in front of the rubble with city officials. He said he was “very, very overtaken by the whole situation…. Very, very sad feeling.”
“The plan was to save the building,” he said.
In 2012, Greenbaum pursued a different plan. That year, the synagogue submitted an application to the commission to have the building’s landmark status revoked.
In its paperwork, the synagogue cited the severely dilapidated state of the property and said that its “best and perhaps only option” was to demolish its building and sell the lot to developers.
The application came months after the City Council gave final approval to a controversial plan to finally allow new development at a set of city-owned vacant lots nearby the synagogue; a project that the downtown Jewish community had blocked for decades. That new project, now called Essex Crossing, will bring 1,000 new apartments to the area — plus a glut of flashy new retail, including a Target, a Trader Joe’s and a Regal Cinemas. Construction on Essex Crossing is well underway. Investment interest sparked by the project has led to a number of ancillary developments; synagogue leaders likely hoped to ride that wave.
In 2013, however, in the face of communal pressure, Greenbaum withdrew the application and began to search for options that would keep the building intact. The local news blog The Lo-Down reported in 2014 that Greenbaum had sought to sell the synagogue to the developers behind Essex Crossing. Instead, he ended up partnering with the Chinese-American Planning Council and Gotham.
Now, those years of negotiations could be for naught. The Chinese-American Planning Council did not respond to a request for comment. Gotham could not immediately be reached.
On Monday afternoon, some residents gathered to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, for the building. The fire is under investigation. Greenbaum said that there was a smaller fire last week, and that he believes that young people had been sneaking into the building.
The local news website dnainfo reported that police have footage of three young people running away from the area of the synagogue Sunday evening, though they don’t know if those people were inside the building or have anything to do with the fire.
Aerial views of the building show that the roof is entirely missing. The back and front walls appear to be generally intact, but there are gaping holes in the sides. Charred black roof beams reach skyward on one side of the building, meeting nothing but air. On Monday morning, the smell of smoke lingered around Norfolk Street.
Meanwhile, at the Essex Crossing construction sites nearby, work went on as usual.
“The shul, which is quite historic, is surrounded by all the change and gentrification of the neighborhood,” said Jacob Goldman, a local real estate agent and resident. “For it to literally burn down to the ground is definitely tragic.”
But while the community mourns the loss of the building, many had long been resigned to its inevitable demise.
“There has been so much change already,” said Holly Kaye, a longtime Lower East Side preservation activist. “Within five years time the neighborhood would have been unrecognizable anyway. This is one more nail in the coffin.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.