NEW YORK — According to tradition, the festival of Hanukkah was born when Maccabean Jews in 165 BC fought off Syrian-Greek armies and began to restore their desecrated temple. They only had enough oil to light their lamps for one night, but by some miracle the light burned for eight days.
Tonight, as Hanukkah begins at sunset, a similar tale of wonder is unfolding at the Young Israel temple on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But this time the struggle to bring light to a dying synagogue has been fought on a more human battlefield. Call it Miracle on 91st Street--a story of faith, family and born-again real estate values.
At its heart is Eyal Farage, a successful contractor who lives nearby and has sparked a drive to restore the 80-year-old temple, which has fallen victim to graffiti, vandalism and neglect.
Although Young Israel's four-story sanctuary is one of the largest in New York, the orthodox congregation has shrunk to 35 members, down from 500 about 30 years ago.
'How Could You Let a Synagogue Die?'
It's an old story on the Upper West Side, where a host of synagogues, churches, schools and apartment buildings deteriorated as the neighborhood changed in the 1960s, triggering middle-income flight to the suburbs. While the community has come roaring back in the '90s, the boom left Young Israel behind.
"How could you let a synagogue die?" asked Farage. "After all that I've been through, there was no way I could let this problem go on."
Sometimes, tragedy becomes an epiphany. For Farage, 36, the death of his Iraqi-born father in Israel this year was such a moment. He flew to Israel to bury his dad and learned about a Jewish custom requiring that he do more than simply mourn.
"Rabbis told me that my father was going to be judged in heaven for 12 months, and whether he was allowed to remain there depended on what his children did, whether they had done good things in his name back here on Earth," Farage said. "I decided that bringing this old temple back to life was what I had to do."
Farage, who had in the past only visited the temple for High Holy Days services, wanted to recite the kaddish--the ritual prayer of mourning--when he returned from Israel. But he was unable to rouse a minyan, the group of 10 men needed to recite the prayer. As he climbed the temple's musty stairways, he noticed the peeling paint, the broken stained-glass windows, the water spots on old carpeting where rain had leaked in from the roof. Worst of all, the sanctuary was bathed in shadows. People had to hold prayer books close to their faces just to read Hebrew.
Farage concluded it might take more than $1 million to restore the temple. But he wasn't going to let money stand in the way, because his contracting firm had profited handsomely in recent years. With the blessings of his partner, Ronnie Tal, he got to work.
The first thing Farage did, however, was to join forces with Rabbi Emmanuel Gettinger and convince enough members to form a daily minyan. Gettinger, who has been guiding the temple since the early 1960s, gave his enthusiastic support to Farage's crusade.
Eight months later, the old building is stirring to life. Workers have cleaned up the exterior and repaired the roof. There are plans to refurbish the sanctuary and restore painted-over murals.
"Eyal has been the one who took command, no doubt about it," said fellow congregant Richard Goldfarb. "He's the guy who made so much of this happen for us, and it's because he woke up one day and took control."
Farage has already donated $36,000. And interest in the project has become infectious, said businessman Paul Klausner. "This place was begging to be reborn, and when you think of what motivated Eyal to do this, it's really quite moving."
The goal has been to involve the entire Young Israel community. In recent weeks, congregants have donated $50,000 to speed the work along, said President Sheldon Fine, adding: "We've got a wonderful new spirit here. The temple has turned a corner."
A Likely Windfall From Real Estate
It helps that Young Israel finally has been able to cash in on the community's real estate boom. In 1987, Fine attempted to sell air rights, or space above or adjacent to the temple, to a developer. But there was a recession and he found no takers. When the temple tried again this year, however, it was a different story: In several months, congregants said, the synagogue hopes to sell air rights for $5 million.
The money guarantees the congregation's long-term survival, and Fine stressed that Farage's campaign has been crucial. All the money in the world can't buy a minyan, he said, and a synagogue without a minyan is like a community without a beating heart.
Or a temple without lights at Hanukkah. Like his Jewish ancestors 2,165 years ago, Farage feels lucky when he flicks a switch every morning and sees the chandeliers still burning, filling Young Israel with a brilliant glow.
"I did what was right," he said quietly. "The temple lives."