Centennial Celebration
Teenager Set Manhattan Synagogue Ablaze, Police Say

NY Times - May 18, 2017

by ASHLEY SOUTHALL and DAVID W. DUNLAP

For eight generations in the life of a city that changed constantly around them, the twin towers on Norfolk Street beckoned the faithful on Manhattan’s Lower East Side: first, Baptists, whose congregation was the forerunner of the Riverside Church; then Methodists; and then, for 122 years, Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, who called the synagogue Beth Hamedrash Hagodol — the Great House of Study.

Much of what remained of the 167-year-old building, a city landmark at 60-64 Norfolk Street, burned to the ground amid plumes of smoke on Sunday, and the police say a 14-year-old boy is responsible for the fire. No injuries were reported.

The boy, whose name the police withheld because he is being prosecuted as a juvenile, was taken into custody on a felony arson charge Tuesday at his home about a half-mile from the burned-out synagogue, the police said.

The boy appeared at Family Court in Manhattan on Wednesday, where the case was referred to the city’s Law Department, which prosecutes most cases involving children ages 7 to 15. He was then released to his parents and ordered to return to court on May 31, when prosecutors must outline what charges they intend to pursue against him.

The building opened in 1850 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, was a Methodist church beginning in 1860 and became home to a Jewish congregation in 1885. It had been closed for about a decade when it erupted in flames around 7 p.m. Sunday. Firefighters spent about two hours extinguishing the flames, and by that time much of the Gothic Revival-style building had collapsed into a pile of debris 15 feet high.

The police began to suspect that the fire might have been deliberate after witnesses described seeing three boys running from the burning synagogue. Surveillance video from a nearby building confirmed what the witnesses said and allowed the police to identify the youth, Chief of Detectives Robert K. Boyce said on Tuesday, hours before the arrest.

The police took the teenager into custody after interviewing his two companions, who were released. He was brought on Tuesday night to the 7th Precinct station, where Commissioner James P. O’Neill happened to be attending a community council meeting. The boy declined to talk to investigators and requested a lawyer, the police said.

The police have not determined a motive or uncovered any indication of bias.

The Fire Department has not determined how the fire started. The investigation cannot be completed until safety supports are installed to make the building safe to enter, Jim Long, a department spokesman, said.

Astonishingly the synagogue’s towers remained standing after the latest in a series of grave traumas suffered at the landmark building.

Its two-story Gothic window was lost to the winds of a summer storm in 1997. That was followed in 2001 by a fire in the roof and ceiling caused by faulty wiring. Then, in 2007, the struggling synagogue closed its doors.

As late as the 1980s, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was still a “lively congregation,” Richard F. Shepard of The New York Times reported. But as the Jewish population of the Lower East Side aged and died or departed, the synagogue’s existence became increasingly tenuous.

Though private and state grants arrived amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, the building needed millions of dollars of repair and rehabilitation work.

“We’re a very poor shul,” Rabbi Yehuda Oshry said in 2001, after the disastrous fire in the roof and ceiling. Two years later, his father, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a rabbinical scholar who had led the congregation for half a century after fleeing the Nazis in Lithuania, died.

The younger Rabbi Oshry had been permitted by firefighters to rescue the Torah scrolls, which were — in many respects — far more the embodiment of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol than the twin towers.

In his book “The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry,” Rabbi Ephraim Oshry had written: “Jews were somehow able to part with everything that defined their place in life — home, business, job — but the one thing they could not part with was the Book.”