United States

Investigators Hunt for Clues as to What Sparked Blaze at Historic Manhattan Synagogue

Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has occupied the building since 1885

What to Know

  • An investigation is underway to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed the historic synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side
  • The fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol in Manhattan broke out Sunday and the congregation has occupied the 1850s-era building since 1885
  • At one time the building housed the oldest congregation of orthodox Russian Jews in the United States

An investigation is underway to determine what sparked the Sunday night blaze that destroyed a historic synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side. 

Authorities believe the fire started from within the historic Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, though how, and precisely where, remains under investigation. Fire marshals began conducting a ground search at the synagogue on Norfolk Street Monday, about 12 hours after the three-alarm blaze tore through the 19th century structure. 

Steve Hellman, deputy inspector at the 7th Precinct, said surveillance footage shows three children around the age of 10 fleeing the fire scene, but Hellman said the preliminary investigation indicates the blaze was not criminal in nature. The investigation is ongoing, he said. 

Thick black smoke billowed over the city as firefighters fought the blaze Sunday night; authorities issued an emergency alert warning neighbors to close their windows and stay indoors if possible to avoid it.

Social media videos showed heavy flames raging from the top of the building. Ultimately, the roof collapsed. The entire building was destroyed.

According to the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, the congregation is the oldest for orthodox Russian Jews in the United States, and occupied the 1850s-era building since 1885. The synagogue closed in 2007. 

As recently as 2013, the congregation had considered demolishing the building altogether, before a change of heart kept it open, according to The Forward. 

Meanwhile, residents were shocked and heartbroken that a fixture in the neighborhood that dates back to the 1800s was eviscerated.

"I don't know what the people in charge of it planned to do with it," Stuart Goldstein, of the Lower East Side, said. "It’s a pity that something with that much history is now no longer functioning."

Nobody was injured in the blaze, officials said. 

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