Feeling Kehilat Jeshurun’s Pain

There exists, in ancient rabbinic literature, the concept of a t’filat shav- a useless or ill-advised prayer uttered in vain and therefore to be avoided. A man is not to say "I hope my wife gives birth to a boy," for the sex of a child is determined at the moment of conception, and certainly not impacted thereafter by prayer. And if you see a fire burning as you approach your home, you should not say "I hope it’s not my house that’s burning."

Either it is, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, it is still true that someone else’s house is on fire, and there is no joy to be had…

When news of the terrible fire at Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun first began to circulate the other evening, a friend from out of town contacted my wife to ask if that was our synagogue in Forest Hills. But while the answer was no, true to the teaching of the Talmud, my wife and I felt nothing but horror and dismay when we learned that KJ, as it is popularly called, was in flames.

We quickly turned on the TV, and there before our eyes was a live image that looked eerily like so many that we were familiar with from old videos of Kristallnacht. Flames from a burning synagogue leaping into the sky, magnificent stained glass windows exploding with grotesquely bright from the fire’s light, roof collapsing, horrified onlookers gathered in the street gaping at the spectacle… It was a scene all too familiar to us from the pages of our history. We were, like so many others, profoundly disturbed at the sight, and the reality behind it.

As a congregational rabbi who has been at one synagogue for all the thirty years of my rabbinate, I understand, on a primal level, the passionate connection that members of a spiritual community have to the building where their babies were named, their children became bar/bat mitzvah, where many were married, and still others buried from. A synagogue is far more that bricks or stones; it is part and parcel of one’s religious identity and sense of self. It is where we go to find God and feel God’s closeness. There is nothing more powerful than that connection, and for KJ’s members, it is- at least for now lost.

But on a purely personal level, at different junctures in my life, the building that housed Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun played a significant role in my own life.

When I was in high school, the Upper School of Ramaz, the fine Jewish day school associated with KJ, was still housed in the building adjacent to the synagogue (where the Lower School is now). I would regularly travel there from my home in New Jersey for varsity basketball games and social events. My years as a camper at Massad Bet regularly brought me to KJ to visit summer friends, so many of whom were students at Ramaz. Years later, when I worked at Ramaz for two years in the Primary School, just a few blocks away on East 82nd Street, my wife and I lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and davened at KJ on Shabbat mornings. Yes, the shul was Orthodox and we were Conservative, but the service was compelling, the clergy were outstanding, and the sanctuary was simply magnificent. My daughter’s graduation from Ramaz was in that sanctuary. Thinking of it in ruins now is too painful to contemplate.

As I write this article, no final determination has been made as to the origins of the fire, and whether or not arson was involved. Obviously, any implication of arson would add an even more troubling overlay to what is already a disturbing enough story. I am hoping against hope that, as great a trauma as this has been, we don’t all have to contemplate the possibility of hatred of that sort- again.

It has been heartening to see the swift and compassionate response of the community- Jewish and other- to Kehilath Jeshurun’s situation. One way or another, I know that they will have a place to hold services, and will be provided the support that they need to transcend this moment of grave crisis. Also, to know that community and the extraordinary caliber of its professional and lay leadership is to know that Kehilath Jeshurun will rebuild, and do so with dignity, in the manner that befits a great synagogue with a great history. And we are all, of course, grateful for the courage- yet again- of New York City’s fire fighters, and for the fact that no one was seriously hurt, and the Torah scrolls and sacred texts were not harmed.

But it is much too soon for the members of the KJ community to find great comfort in the certainty of the rebuilding of its synagogue. The loss that they have suffered is painful and real, and they both deserve and need the time to mourn what they have lost.

All of us who love our own synagogues must intuit their pain, and grieve with them. I know I do- and I wish them comfort.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.