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Fire Destroys Upper East Side Synagogue

By DNAinfo Staff on July 11, 2011 9:37pm  | Updated on July 12, 2011 10:53am

A fire broke out at a synagogue at East 85th Street between Lexington and Park avenues
A fire broke out at a synagogue at East 85th Street between Lexington and Park avenues
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By Jill Colvin and Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Staff

UPPER EAST SIDE — A four-alarm fire ripped through a century-old Upper East Side synagogue Monday night, sending huge flames into the air and filling the sky with smoke.

The fire at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun's synagogue at 121 E. 85th St. between Park and Lexington avenues started near the roof around 8:30 p.m. Monday and was still raging close to an hour later, fire officials said. There were 170 firefighters and EMS workers on scene, which is a block away from a fire station.

Five of the emergency workers suffered minor injuries during the blaze, the Fire Department said.

The fire appears to have started on the fourth floor, and the building had been under construction since May 2, according to NYPD spokesman Paul Browne.

All of the religious artifacts had been removed from the building, Browne said.

The construction was set to be completed by the fall.

Neighboring buildings were being evacuated as a precaution, he said.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who has been a rabbi of the congregation for 52 years, said no congregants were injured, and that there was "nothing of value except for the synagogue" affected.

"There are two ways you can look at this," Rabbi Lookstein said, "You can cry over the loss, which is a very very real thing. But the most important thing to do in the face of something like this, is to ask yourself, 'how do we respond? Now, what do you do when you have just had a loss?'"

"I have complete faith that our community, which is 140 years old, will respond. We will rebuild what has been lost, and with God's help, we will go on."

The synagogue has 1,200 members in the congregation, a synagogue official said.

Razie Weissman, 24, who attended pre-school in the building and whose family attends services at the synagogue, said she was on her way home when "We heard the sirens, felt the dust, the soot and the heat."

"Thank God no one was in there," she said as she stood watching the building smoldering and Firefighters putting out the flames.

"It's painful, all my friends are calling me right now, I'm just grateful no one was hurt," she added.

Weissman's husband Noam Weissman said the synagogue "was one of the most beautiful synagogues in America," with stained glass.

Jessica Rosen-Laegner, 32, whose husband is a doorman at a neighboring building, said she stopped by the block Monday night to visit her husband.
On the way there, she said she saw the flames from down the street.
"I've never seen anything like it before. I was down at the towers on 9/11 and I've never seen flames that high," said Rosen-Laegner.

Her husband stayed inside 111 E. 85th St. looking after some of the elderly tenants.

Firefighters on the scene said it appeared unlikely that the building would be able to be salvaged.

The building had been issued a work permit Monday to do facade work, according to the Department of Building's website.

The building had put in a permit request to modify their sprinkler system and their standpipe last week, according to the Buildings Department records.

The synagogue was designed by George F. Pelham in 1902, in the Renaissance Revival style of a Reform temple, according to the synagogue's website.