City Rules Beis Medrash Hagadol Unstable

Fire, Lower East Side, Beis Medrash Hagadol
The remains of Beis Medrash Hagadol after the fire.

A month after a 3-alarm fire ravaged one of New York’s most historic shuls, the city determined the structure to be unsound, presumably paving the way for the site’s eventual demolition.

Beis Medrash Hagadol, an imposing 167-year-old structure on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was largely gutted by the blaze, which also caused its high gothic ceiling to collapse. Now, the congregation, which ceased operation in 2007, has applied for the remnants to be cleared.

Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, who served as the shul’s last Rabbi and maintains responsibility for the property, said that he hopes the demolition can eventually pave the way for a residential building which would also contain a shul on the site, and that it would bear the name of Beis Medrash Hagadol. Rabbi Greenbaum hopes that the shul could house a yeshivah or kollel that would reinvigorate the neighborhood, once the city’s center of Jewish life.

“It would infuse new energy into the Lower East Side,” he told Hamodia.

Inspectors from the city’s Department of Buildings were unable to enter the rubble for safety reasons and conducted their investigation using a crane that took pictures from the shul’s sides. They declared the building to be unstable. Their conclusion was corroborated by a private architectural firm hired by the congregation.

“They both said that there’s no way to make the building safe, and the only option is for it to come down,” said Rabbi Greenbaum.

The structure was built in 1850 and converted to a shul by a group of Russian Jews in 1885. It was the rabbinical seat of Harav Yaakov Joseph, zt”l, New York’s only Chief Rabbi and, more recently, was led by Harav Ephraim Oshry, zt”l. At its peak, Beis Medrash Hagadol had well over one thousand members.

In 1967, Rav Oshry saved the site from demolition by procuring official landmark status. The building’s history and unique Gothic Revival-style has led it to be held in high regard by New York’s architectural preservationists. In 2001, another fire destroyed the building’s roof and ceiling, but was repaired with funds from a grant.

Despite the ruling that the building cannot be used, the path to construction will most likely be a long one. The local community board as well as the Landmarks Commission must approve demolition. In the event that demolition plans are cleared, gaining approval to build will be yet another hurdle.

In 2012, as the building was shuttered and in a state of progressive deterioration, Rabbi Greenbaum had filed for the right to demolish with the hope of building a structure similar to what is now planned, but the application was withdrawn amid objections from preservationists.

The fire, which broke out early in the evening of May 14, engulfed the entire building and caused its roof to collapse took nearly three hours to extinguish. No sifrei Torah or other sefarim were damaged, as they had been removed when the building was shuttered nearly 10 years ago.

A local 14-year-old boy was arrested days later after being identified on surveillance footage fleeing the blaze. He was later released, and charges have not yet been filed.

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