Rabbis vow to rebuild after collapse


By Lincoln Anderson

Removing the Torah scrolls from the synagogue on Monday morning, from left, Rabbi Gershon Spiegel, Joel Kaplan of the United Jewish Council, Democratic District Leader David Weinberger and Rabbi Shmuel Spiegel.

Following the collapse of the First-Roumanian American Congregation’s roof on Sunday afternoon, the three rabbi brothers who lead the historic Rivington St. synagogue are vowing that it will be rebuilt.

The Spiegel brothers — Gershon, the congregation’s president; Shmuel, the officiating rabbi; and Ari, the assistant rabbi — were joined by Councilmember Alan Gerson and a multiethnic group of local leaders, including a Latino Protestant minister and a representative of Asian Americans for Equality, at a press conference on Monday outside the damaged building.

“We will continue on this street,” said Gershon Spiegel. “East Siders are resolved. We don’t give up. That’s why we’re still here and will continue to be here.”

“This synagogue is part of the great history of the Lower East Side,” Councilmember Gerson said in his remarks. “It has been a house of worship since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. It is an important jewel in our city’s history. And more important, it is a jewel of our present and will be of the future.”

The largest synagogue on the Lower East Side and one of the largest in New York City, the 150-year-old building between Ludlow and Orchard Sts. can seat up to 2,000 people. In its heyday when the neighborhood was solidly Jewish, it was known as the cantors’ Carnegie Hall. Today, however, after demographic changes, the synagogue has only about 30 active members. Before it became the First Roumanian-American synagogue in 1885, it was a Protestant church.

The collapse came in two parts. Neighbors heard a huge boom sometime around 4 p.m., followed by a second and even more thunderous crash about 10 to 15 minutes later, while the street filled with thick dust, according to witnesses. Residents in several nearby buildings were initially evacuated. But as of Monday, only nine residents in seven apartments in a building just to the west of the synagogue were still unable to return, because the synagogue’s adjacent wall needed shoring. They were being put up by the Red Cross in emergency housing. Margaret Chin of AAFE, which manages the affected building, 87 Rivington St., voiced her support and said the group would provide meeting space for the synagogue.

The Reverend Marcos Rivera of the Primitive Christian Church said their old building on E. Broadway had collapsed years back and had to be demolished and that such an event is like “a mourning.”

The synagogue’s roof gave way because several in a series of massive wooden bow trusses that support it failed.

In what the Spiegel brothers called a miracle, no one was injured in the collapse. In another stroke of good fortune, the synagogue’s hand-written Torah scrolls were housed under a section of roof that didn’t fall and were rescued from inside the building Monday morning.

Luckily, Solomon Rosenzweig, an engineer they had retained to check the building’s structural integrity, five weeks ago advised them that they should not meet in the building anymore. Heavy rains during Yom Kippur that caused leaks throughout the synagogue and falling tiles had raised red flags. Rosenzweig found that an end of one of the wooden trusses had split. As a result, for the last five weeks, the congregation has been holding services and classes at the Spiegels’ mother’s apartment in the Grand St. co-ops.

Ryan Pearson, 27, was among a group of tenants — a few of them toting cats in plastic carrying cages — going into 123 Ludlow St. just before midnight Sunday, after they had been given the O.K. to reenter their homes.

“I was getting my laundry and heard a rumble,” Pearson recounted of the collapse. “I have a full view of the roof. The A-frames [trusses] were still up before it went down the first time. The second time, it all went down.”

He and others took refuge at the bar of the new high-rise Hotel on Rivington a block away and were hoping they might be offered free rooms but were offered a rate, which he later realized was a premium, but which was still too steep for them.

In addition to the modern-style hotel, other nearby businesses attest to how much the neighborhood has changed, from Toys in Babeland, a store selling upscale sexual aids, to Teany, the tea store opened by techno rocker Moby.

Yet, the stretch of Rivington St. was co-named several years ago in honor of the three brothers’ late father, who led the synagogue for 25 years before his death in June 2001, and the brothers say they intend to stay despite the major calamity that has befallen the synagogue.

At Monday’s press conference, Gershon Spiegel said they will either rebuild the damaged synagogue or build anew.

“We will rebuild,” he said. “The Roumanian synagogue will remain on Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel Way…. We don’t know yet if we will be able to rebuild this building or build a new building.”

At the press conference, it was announced that a rebuilding fund for the synagogue was being raised. Yet, many — even some of the congregation members — were not so optimistic that the small congregation would be able to rebuild, much less raise the needed funds to construct a new synagogue. It’s not clear if insurance will cover the damage.

Sounding skeptical that the existing building will be salvaged, Ilyse Fink, a Department of Buildings spokesperson, said, “The building is not at inevitable risk of collapse. But you can’t leave a building open to the elements too long. It’s really up to them and their engineer what they decide to do.”

Rosenzweig, the engineer, said that if more than a certain amount of the historic all-brick building needs to be rebuilt, then it will have to braced with steel to bring it up to current seismic codes, which is a significant job and expense. The walls would have to be brought down several feet to provide a solid foundation upon which to rebuild, he said. Currently, some of what fell is leaning on the east and west walls, putting pressure on them and making them at risk of buckling, he said. But the walls will be shored up and a construction shed put up for safety.

Joshua Schainberg, vice president of the synagogue, likewise said it would be daunting feats to save the building or put up a new one.

“It’s a multimillion dollar project,” he said. He added that an immediate concern is salvaging the synagogue’s 103-year-old, 40-foot-by-30-foot, carved wooden ark — in which the Torahs are stored — which was imported from Roumania. The ark escaped damage.

“I feel very pessimistic,” said Al Orensanz, who with his brother, Angel, renovated an abandoned historic synagogue on Norfolk St. 18 years ago that is now an events space as well as a functioning synagogue. “I have a gut feeling,” he said, standing among the crowd on Monday. “It will take $4 million to rebuild this. These buildings are a box of surprises unless you work systematically.”

Captain Frank Dwyer, commanding officer of the Seventh Precinct, had been spending time with family in New Jersey on his day off when he got word of the roof cave-in and quickly drove back to the Lower East Side.

“Once you find out there’s nobody in there, it’s a great sense of relief,” he told The Villager after the press conference.

Speaking with one of the rabbis on the phone as he drove in, Dwyer’s next thought — after hearing that no one was injured — had been to ask if they had managed to get out the Torahs.

“Absolutely, sacred texts,” he said. “You can’t grow up in New York City [he was raised in Flatbush] without learning a little bit about other religions.”

Although the neighborhood has clearly transformed, the synagogue still exerts a spiritual pull on some. Jonathan Lonschein from East Harlem found out from his 102-year-old grandmother that his great-great-grandfather Nathan Rosenzweig was one of the synagogue’s three founders. The 40-year-old teacher got in touch with the Spiegels and came down to the synagogue, where his great-great-grandfather’s portrait is one of three hanging in the office, and was allowed to read some of the Torah scrolls. At Lonschein’s wedding, Rabbi Shmuel Spiegel will officiate.

Also at Monday’s event was Israel Kahlenberg.

“I was born in Vienna. We got out in 1939,” said Kahlenberg, now in his 70s. He recalled days when he and his family used to go to not one, but make the rounds of several synagogues, to hear the renowned Lower East Side rabbis of the day speak.

“In 1945,” he recalled, “when I used to go to this synagogue, it was packed.”

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