New York, Nu York: Lower East Side Shul Destroyed by Fire
By ELLEN LEVITTUpdated: MAY 20, 2017 16:03
A legendary synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side has suffered a massive, debilitating fire. The Norfolk Street Synagogue, formally known as the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, sustained a huge fire on Sunday night, May 14. While much of New York City was still celebrating Mothers Day, the fire broke out in the old building on Norfolk Street. The shul, built as a church in the mid-1800s and which served two church congregations before becoming a synagogue founded by Eastern European Jews in the 1880s, had been in poor shape for several years. Neglect, mostly due to the congregation's poor finances and weather erosion, had taken its toll. Windows had been damaged after a hurricane about 10 years ago. Vandals had also struck the building at least a few times. It had been standing more or less empty for almost 10 years.But apparently a teenager set it afire this past weekend. Arson has probably dealt the final blow to anyone's grand plans of renovating this interesting old structure. Very little is standing, except for the two tower sections that front Norfolk Street. The roof is gone, the interior is destroyed, and the back wall is barely standing.The local news has been covering this story closely, because of its dramatic destruction as well as its historic importance. And I have been following its condition for the past several years because of my work documenting Lost Synagogues throughout New York City. I included this synagogue in my 2013 book The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan, but did designate it as more or less in limbo. Now, unless a miracle were to take place, it is pretty much gone.It is terribly sad to see this happen, but many people are not surprised. Or they wondered if the building would simply collapse due to its bad condition. The last time I stopped by before the fire, earlier in the spring (I was in the neighborhood) I had noticed the Fire Department symbol for a condemned building, painted on the front. The symbol, an X inside a square, is a familiar notation for a structurally compromised site.Hearing about the fire, and seeing news coverage on Sunday evening, I found time on Monday to drive to it and see what had happened. The street and a few neighboring streets were cordoned off by the Police and Fire Departments, due to investigation. I was able to take a picture from afar on Grand Street, where I spotted burnt debris on the shul's steps. A few minutes later I drove over to Delancey Street and by clambering on a rock, I was able to see the building from the side, through trees. I took a few more pictures there.But the news media have supplied several photos of the terrible scene, including aerial shots showing the extensive damage. Many people I know have been talking about this. At my synagogue's Annual Membership meeting, a congregant named Sandy approached me and we discussed the situation about the "BHH."What will become of the BHH? Does it have a future or will it become nothing but a memory?
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