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Rabbi Pledges to Save as Much of LES Synagogue as Possible After Fire

 The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue was largely destroyed in a massive fire.
The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue was largely destroyed in a massive fire.
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DNAinfo/Janon Fisher

LOWER EAST SIDE — The historic Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue will likely require a full demolition after being ravaged by arson last month, said an engineer hired to evaluate the charred remains — but the synagogue's rabbi has committed to saving as much of the structure as possible.

The 167-year-old house of worship at 60 Norfolk St. is in dire condition after May's massive fire, an engineer at Howard Zimmerman Architects explained at Tuesday night's Community Board 3 Landmarks Committee meeting. He noted that much of the facade is beyond salvation, though parts may be salvageable pending a more thorough investigation.

"At the end of the day, the application is going to go in for a demolition," said structural project manager Bryan Chester. "The rabbi and the congregation are committing to try their best to save as much as they can. I don’t think anybody on this table or elsewhere wants to see the building go — it's just the reality of the situation that it's probably going that way, but we will do our best."

The committee ultimately passed a resolution stating that the synagogue and investigators determine which parts of the structure can safely be preserved. A general demolition application has already been filed with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must sign off on any plans to demolish the landmarked site.

The building's front facade is extremely unstable, with wide cracks running through the two towers, Chester noted. The side facing Broome Street is also on the verge of collapse, and firefighters apparently saw it swaying while spraying it down to tame the blaze, he added.

The building's rear is in "relatively good condition," but investigators haven't been able to get a close enough look to make a determination, Chester explained. Portions of the building's south-facing side, neighboring a senior center, may be salvageable as well, though parts are significantly deteriorated.

The synagogue's rabbi, Mendel Greenbaum, echoed the engineer's commitment to saving as much of the original building as possible, and pledged to re-erect a synagogue at the site regardless of the fate of the ruins.

But the arrangement that would facilitate that rebuilding is now partially up in the air. 

Greenbaum said he had been in talks shortly before the fire to sell the synagogue's air rights to developer Gotham Development, an arrangement that would ensure repairs for the house of worship. The deal would also facilitate the development of affordable housing and a community center on a neighboring property owned by the Chinese-American Planning Council, which runs the senior center next door.

The Council still intends to pursue a similar arrangement with the synagogue, said the organization's general counsel, though it is unclear whether Gotham is still on board.

The developer did not return a request for comment.

"We, the Chinese-American Planning Council, remain committed to working with the synagogue... to working with all sectors of the community to put in place as close to the original plan as we can, to restore a place for the synagogue, to create additional affordable housing," said CPC General Counsel Alan Gerson, adding the groups are partially "back to the drawing board" in terms of hammering out a final arrangement with a developer.

The building was constructed in 1850 as a Baptist church, and in 1885 it was acquired by the synagogue, the oldest Russian Orthodox congregation in the country, according to LPC documents. It was designated a city landmark in 1967.

The structure's deterioration began in 1997 with a wind storm, as the rabbi previously told the Lo-Down, and worsened in 2001 by an electrical fire. Greenbaum chose to shutter the synagogue in 2007 due to the unsafe conditions and began battling for funds to restore the structure. And though he briefly considered demolition as the best course of action — at one point filing an application for demolition claiming hardship — he ultimately decided against it, he said at Tuesday's meeting.

The tentative deal with the Chinese-American Planning Council and Gotham was the long-awaited realization of that goal, he said.

Community members at the meeting lined up to lament the synagogue's destruction and implored all groups to preserve as much of it as possible. A local urban geographer further requested that whatever developments come out of an air rights transfer benefit the community.

"This building and its memorialization is very important," said Elissa Sampson, a lecturer in Cornell University's Jewish Studies program. "Saving what can be saved is very important. But we also need to know the public benefit and who the money goes to, because these are not small things when people trade on history of the Lower East Side."


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