May 29, 2024
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‘The New Sanctuary of Our Past:’ Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun Celebrates Rededication of Shul

New York—“A Promise Fulfilled” is how Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (CKJ), a synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a long and illustrious history, opens its brochure about its rededication. And for all intents and purposes, the newly rebuilt CKJ is indeed the realization of a dream born over four years ago.

Rabbi Lookstein, the shul’s current senior rabbi, told the attendees of the rededication how “this beloved synagogue was going up in flames” on July 11, 2011. A fire broke out in the shul while renovations were going on, and while no one was hurt, the shul was severely damaged.

“[The media and others asked me:] What are you going to do?” Rabbi Lookstein remembered. “[My answer was,] we can either shed tears and give into depression… over what we have lost, or we can be determined to rebuild.”

And that’s just what they did. While the congregation hosted minyanim and events in a variety of temporary spaces, ranging from the Ramaz school buildings (Ramaz and CKJ are affiliated) to the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the shul worked on a plan to rebuild the destroyed building into the “new sanctuary of our past,” as described by CKJ president Joel Katz.

The main sanctuary is a wonder in and of itself, with massive columns reminiscent of the temples of yore, grand, tan walls and a massive stained glass circle with God’s name at its center. According to longtime CKJ member and Ramaz student Benjamin Shiff, the new sanctuary has fewer seats than the previous because of fire codes, and the balcony-style women’s section used to have bronze railings, although it now has glass partitions.

The rededication ceremony itself featured songs performed by Ramaz’s Chamber Choir, led by music teacher Daniel Henkin; the arrival of over seven Sifrei Torah for the Ark; the recitation of psalms and prayers such as Mizmor L’Todah (A Song of Thanks); and remarks from Jacob Doft (chairman of the Ramaz board), Katz, Rabbi Lookstein, and new Ramaz Head of School Rabbi Eric Grossman.

Rabbi Lookstein spoke of how when the disaster occurred, the focus was never on “Why did this happen to us?” but rather, “What we have to do now.” And the community focused on rebuilding KJ with a “gorgeous chapel, library, play roofs, [and] wonderful new Ramaz facilities.” (The CKJ building and the Ramaz Lower School building are connected; both were severely damaged in the fire, although KJ bore the brunt of the harm.)

Many of the speakers at the rededication thanked everyone who helped out with the rebuilding efforts, whether they gave their time, effort or money. However, KJ “never announced how much we received [in donations], and we won’t,” said Rabbi Lookstein. While the number is undoubtedly massive, given the size and scope of the new building, it was not something Rabbi Lookstein or the other speakers wanted to focus on.

Rabbi Eric Grossman, in his remarks to the packed crowd, said that the new CKJ is “larger than we have ever known,” analogous in some ways to the future rebuilding of a new Temple in Jerusalem. “[The community] permitted [the] embers of adversity to fuel our imaginations.”

The ceremony closed with the recitation of the blessing HaTov V’Hametiv (God Who is good and does good) and the singing of Shehechiyanu by the chamber choir.

By Oren Oppenheim

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