Cause Of Fire At Historic Lower East Side Synagogue Under Investigation

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Investigators are trying to determine what caused a fire at a historic synagogue on the Lower East Side.

The light of day Monday brought new images of the damage and debris from Sunday’s fire, which broke out around 7 p.m. at the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue on Norfolk Street near Broome Street.

Along with ATF agents, fire inspectors on ladders were peering into the structure trying to figure out what caused the synagogue to burn, sending smoke billowing into the air that could be seen for miles across the skyline.

“It was very unfortunate,” neighbor Richard Caplan said. “Very large fire, a lot of smoke. I was concerned about the neighborhood and concerned about a very old structure.”

FDNY inspectors said they believe the fire started from inside the building. They say they’ve been able to search the basement, which was not burned, but that’s as far as they’ve been able to get, CBS2’s Scott Rapoport reported.

“No way we can search the first floor, with what collapsed on top of it,” said Manhattan Borough Commander Roger Sakowich.

The building served the community for more than 120 years, but was closed in 2007. Caplan lives nearby and said his wife noticed something out of the ordinary there a day before the fire.

“She said she had witnessed somebody jumping over the fence,” he said. “They didn’t look around to case the joint, they just jumped over the fence, went up through the windows that’s on the side of the synagogue and that was it.”

Fire officials say that in itself might not be unusual.

“I think there of been a lot of people in and out of this building for a long time, so that’s possible,” said Sakowich.

The FDNY says the cause of the blaze, which burned for two hours, is still under investigation. So far, they have no reports of accelerants being used, Rapoport reported. No one was hurt.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin says this was the first synagogue in the city to serve Eastern European Jews.

Some advocated for the empty structure to be torn down while other groups, including one on Facebook, wanted to save it with some pushing for a major multi-million dollar fundraising campaign to restore the building in need of repair.

“There was an attempt to try to raise some money in order to try and affect those repairs, but they didn’t materialize,” said former congregant Dov Blatt.

The rabbi of the synagogue told Rapoport he was in the middle of plans to renovate and restore the congregation, but now he says that is in doubt.

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