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Congregation Beth Israel in Hempstead reopens a year after fire tore through synagogue

Rabbi Michael Eisenstein stands with town leaders during

Rabbi Michael Eisenstein stands with town leaders during a ribbon cutting of the Beth Israel rededication ceremony on Dec. 7, 2014. Credit: Johnny Milano

One of the oldest Conservative synagogues in Nassau County has special reason to celebrate Hanukkah this year: It has been rebuilt and reopened after a fire damaged most of the building 13 months ago.

Congregation Beth Israel in Hempstead, founded in 1915, was engulfed in flames on Nov. 13, 2013, during a renovation project. The new temple was officially rededicated Dec. 7, just in time for celebration of Hanukkah.

"We have a new building. We're very optimistic," said Richard Krauss, president of the 130-member synagogue. "Out of something bad came something good."

The eight-day holiday, also known as the Jewish Festival of Lights, starts Tuesday at sunset and ends Dec. 24 at sunset.

Hanukkah carries themes of hope, miracles, religious freedom and thanksgiving for Jews across Long Island and around the world, said Rabbi Steven Moss, spiritual leader of B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale and president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis.

The holiday recognizes the rededication of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the second century Before the Common Era. Jewish warriors retook control of the temple from Syrian and Greek soldiers, and found oil for the eternal light in the synagogue. The oil appeared to be enough for a day, but the light miraculously burned for eight days.

In commemoration, Jews light a candle on a menorah on the first night of Hanukkah and another candle each successive night until the entire menorah is lit. Families share special Hanukkah treats, such as fried potato pancakes called latkes, and children play with traditional tops called dreidels.

Krauss said rededication of the synagogue at 141 Hilton Ave. in Hempstead is something of a miracle. The temple, in the Tudor-style house since 1981, caught fire after a contractor doing major renovations used a blowtorch to try to get heavy layers of paint off the exterior walls, he said.

No one was injured, but the building "was in a major shambles," Krauss said. It cost $570,000 in insurance money to repair it, he said.

Moss said his temple, in Oakdale, also has a special reason to give thanks.

To mark the synagogue's 50th anniversary, it has commissioned a rare, handwritten Haftarah scroll, which comprises selections from 34 of the 39 books of the Jewish Bible.

While most synagogues, both on the Island and elsewhere, have a handwritten scroll of the Bible's first five books, known as the Torah, a handwritten Haftarah scroll is a rarity, Moss said.

"During my 43 years at the temple, I've had many dreams -- and one was to have a scroll" of the Haftarah, Moss said. "Thankfully, that dream has now come true."

A scribe in Israel fashioned the scroll using natural ingredients, including a quill pen and ink made from plants. It will be officially given to the synagogue Friday night during Sabbath services.

Moss said he sees the themes of hope and the survival of the Jewish faith present in both the scroll and the rededication of the Hempstead temple.

When the Greeks and Syrians occupied Israel more than 2,000 years ago, "their goal was to destroy the Jewish people and our traditions and our culture," he said.

The Maccabees "represent the victory over that and the continued survival of the Jewish people," he said.

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