Members of fire-damaged synagogue hold prayer vigil

A four-alarm fire burned inside a three story synagogue on the Upper East Side. (FDNY)

July 13, 2011 4:51:47 AM PDT
Members of a Manhattan synagogue that burst into flames and was badly damaged held a prayer service Tuesday on the street in front of the 110-year-old building.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. led the ritual on East 85th Street, reciting psalms for times of tragedy. Afterward, he said engineers are still assessing the building's stability. Many who saw the blaze on Monday night feared the synagogue would have to be demolished.

"The initial look at the synagogue is much more hopeful than what we assumed last night. It may not be a total loss," Lookstein said.

The fire at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun started at about 8:30 p.m. Monday, rising high into the sky above the Upper East Side. It took about 170 firefighters to bring the blaze under control. Four of them suffered minor injuries.

The cause remained under investigation. Officials said the fire appeared to have started on the top floor and roof.

The smell of smoke lingered in the street as more than a hundred people milled about after prayers. The sight of the burnt-out synagogue brought longtime member Stuart Schlang, 65, to tears. His family joined the tight-knit congregation in 1948 and he attended the affiliated school next door.

For him, the synagogue was much more than simply a structure. It represented history and community. The seat he prayed in during each visit used to be the regular perch of his grandfather's brother.

"I only hope that there's a possibility of saving some of what was," Schlang said.

The building had been under renovation since May. There was no one inside when the fire broke out and the Torah scrolls had already been removed because of the construction.

The prominent rabbi married Donald Trump heiress Ivanka Trump and New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner. He said he was confident the community would be "extraordinarily helpful and generous" to assist in rebuilding.