The way that the chant usually goes, which I heard for the first time when I was 15 and my neighbor (a DJ) threw a gigantic house party, is “we don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn!” Well, nothing could have been further from the truth when a little over a week ago my wife’s Facebook news feed informed us “KJ’s roof is on fire!” Water was definitely needed, however not enough came in time.
KJ, for those not in the Tribe and/or the know, stands for Kehilath Jeshurun and its synagogue is located at 125 East 85th Street – directly next to my old apartment. It’s roof caught on fire around 8:30 PM on Fri, 7/15 and an intense fire raged for over 2 hours which wound up basically destroying the temple. The fire was so powerful that it took 40 fire department vehicles and over 170 FDNY personnel to battle to blaze.
I walked past that shul almost every day for over 5 years making sure every time that Bingham never peed on its walls – if he tried he got a solid yank on his leash and an admonishment from me. My old building’s yearly all resident co-op meeting was held in the shul’s large meeting room and it was at one of those meetings where I first approached my next door neighbor with the proposition that he buy my apartment (which he would up doing to my delight, saving me time, money and the hassle of preparing for who knows how many open houses). Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the principal Rabbi who was giving interviews all night long assuring everyone that the Torahs were safe (the fire was due to some construction and the Torahs had been removed due to this construction) was present at my youngest daughter’s baby naming. While I never attended services regularly there, it definitely not an overstatement to say that it played a large part in my UES married with dog and kids NYC experience.
Coincidentally that night, I was trying to contact my old neighbors to see if we could meet up considering I had family had plans to be in the city that coming Sunday. We wanted to see what they had done with our place (they combined their apartment with ours) and wound up emailing back and forth getting status updates about how the building was evacuated, how they “grabbed the kids and just ran” and how bad the fire was. The beautiful stained glass windows that overlooked my old building’s garden either melted or were blown out. My old building suffered some smoke and water damage though not as much as you might believe if you saw video / photos of the fire. My old E line apartment faced east and looked directly down at the roof and when it was Sukkot we would see the large feasts that were held in the sukkah that was erected on the roof (and hear the noise, and were always happy when 11 PM came around and everyone went home). You can see my old building – 111 East 85th Street – in the background of the pic below. My apartment was right by where the tip of the crane on the left is located in the photo.
It was completely surreal being out in burbs yet being so mentally present while the fire raged as I could easily imagine what the fire would have looked like from 24E. I thought about how I would have noticed the fire – “Sweetie, is it hot in our apartment? Is our air conditioner working? I’ll go check…holy shit! KJ’s on fire!” – and how I would have grabbed the kids, the dog, the portable hard drive, our wedding photos and would have bolted down the 24 flights of stairs and then out.
In the day and days post the fire, especially with the Kletzky horror in Brookyn, it was clear that as Lookstein said,
We did not suffer a tragedy. We suffered a calamity. Tragedy is what happened to that boy in Brooklyn and his family. A building that can be rebuilt. You can’t rebuild that life.
On a separate occasion he said,
“There are two ways you can look at this. 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.”
For those who are sitting shiva for the restrained neo-Classical design that
“speaks of a turning point in the early 1900s when Jews no longer felt bound to incorporate Moorish elements in their places of worship as a way of distinguishing them from Christian churches”
and who celebrated various holidays and life events (births, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals), my heart goes out to all of you. To my former neighbors who are dealing with the aftermath, both physical and mental, my heart goes out to you as well.