The Arty Semite

Mourning Kehilath Jeshurun, and Hoping for Rebirth

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

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Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Wiki Commons

In New York, change is the coin of the realm. Nothing remains intact or in one place for very long. Businesses come and go, neighborhoods rise and fall, synagogues and churches shutter their doors and move away.

But not Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (or “KJ,” as it’s commonly called), a stalwart and true urban presence on East 85th Street since 1902.

A raging fire claimed the life of its dignified limestone and brick building last night, leaving me, along with thousands of New Yorkers, with an acute sense of loss.

While I’ve attended services on occasion, my relationship to KJ happens to be professional rather than personal. Years ago, I wrote a book about modern Orthodox Jewry in which the history of the congregation figures prominently. One of the book’s chapters, in fact, contains a description of the building’s cornerstone-laying ceremony, which took place 109 years ago.

Spirits ran high that day, the sources tell us, in what now makes for painful reading. There was a band and bunting and the usual complement of official dignitaries. A “vast concourse of Jewish citizens” also turned out to participate in the proceedings. Everyone on hand agreed that Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun was the “most modern and beautiful orthodox synagogue in New York.”

May it rise again.


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