Jewish institutions closest to the epicenter of last week’s earthquake — synagogues in Tacoma and Olympia — were miraculously spared, but three locations in Seattle suffered significantly.
The Seattle Hebrew Academy, Temple De Hirsch Sinai and the studio of prominent Jewish artist Akiva Segan all sustained serious damage in the 6.8-magnitude quake on Wednesday, Feb. 28.
Seattle Hebrew Academy’s historic building on the north end of the Capitol Hill neighborhood was closed by the city of Seattle for safety reasons. The quake loosened decorative bricks in parapets high above the playground, the front entrance and the back of the school. Plaster cracked and fell from ceilings in the auditorium and several classrooms in the school, built in 1909. SHA Headmaster Rabbi Shmuel Kay said three children suffered minor injuries during the quake, including one girl who was hit on the arm by falling plaster. She was taken to a hospital, treated and released. Two boys had minor neck injuries, possibly from diving under their desks during the earthquake.
Teachers and parents carefully removed essential equipment from the school at the end of last week and over the weekend. SHA students went back to class on Monday in the religious school classrooms at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island. Rebecca Almo, president of the Orthodox day school’s board of directors, said the families and staff at SHA were overwhelmed by the synagogue’s kindness in offering to house the day school students while their building was repaired. “Their community- mindedness is really heartwarming. I can’t thank them enough,” Almo said last week.
Kay said he was hopeful students and staff would be able to move back to the school in a week or two, after the decorative bricks on the top of the four-story school are removed. But Almo and a contractor hired to examine the building said they were finding it would be more difficult than expected to remove the bricks, so the process could take longer. A more thorough inspection this week by a structural engineer will determine if the school suffered any underlying structural damage, and that determination also will have an impact on the student’s return date.
The school does not have earthquake insurance, but they have applied to the federal government for emergency assistance. A city inspector estimated the damage at $100,000, but Kay said that was only a rough estimate.
Kay seemed upbeat and hopeful last Friday and was especially enthusiastic about how much the community has stepped in to assist the school. He said SHA was lucky that the Samis Foundation sent over a contractor, who was in the middle of some work at one of the foundation’s buildings, to inspect the building. After the quake on Wednesday, building contractors with time on their hands were extremely difficult to find. “Thank God, everybody’s helping,” Kay said.
A newer part of the building, which houses the Stroum Jewish Community Center preschool at Seattle Hebrew Academy, was undamaged in the quake and declared safe by the city of Seattle. That part of the school has remained open.
About two weeks ago, almost with prescience, the school hired a contractor to remove four feet from an old, no-longer-used chimney with “serious cracks.” Kay said the chimney most likely would have fallen in the quake and possibly caused serious damage.
Luck or divine intervention was also in evidence at Temple De Hirsch Sinai at the south end of Capitol Hill. The earthquake loosened plaster from a hidden dome ceiling in the “Temple Center” building, the oldest part of the Reform synagogue, which was built in the 1920s. The plaster crashed through a false ceiling in the Jaffe Auditorium. When the false ceiling was installed in the 1970s, the old dome ceiling was not removed. Miraculously, no one was in the room at the time, although students and staff from Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, which occupies part of the Temple on weekdays, had just finished preparing the room for an assembly. Also with incredible luck or foresight, the damaged part of the synagogue is the only section covered by earthquake insurance, according to Executive Director Larry Broder.
“We made a calculated decision because we did an extensive seismic inventory of our whole facility and we made a calculated decision a few years back about what were the smartest things to do,” Broder said.
The congregation has spent much time and money making the Pacific Northwest’s oldest and largest synagogue earthquake-safe. “Part of the reason we came through it so well was because of the preventative work we have invested in,” he said.
The Jaffe Auditorium, along with the temple library, kitchen and some classrooms used by both the religious school and SAAS, will be closed until repairs can be completed or temporary safety measures are put in place, according to Broder. Some classrooms in the religious school, in what Broder called the north building, were built in the 1950s and were undamaged.
What appears to be minor damage also happened in the TDHS sanctuary. Broder said cosmetic grouting and caulking around doorways will have to be cleaned up. Some of the decorative metal lattice around the sanctuary came loose. The temple will have to pay to erect 60- or 70-foot high scaffolding within the building to fix that problem. The damage that appears to be most serious in the sanctuary was a slight shifting of twelve marble panels above the ark.
A structural engineer was scheduled to determine early this week if the Ten Commandment panels were loose from their backing and also if a crack in the skin of one of the columns to the right of the ark was cosmetic or a symptom of deeper problems. As a safety measure, the synagogue moved Shabbat services out of the sanctuary and into a chapel in a newer part of the building.
The congregation also canceled its Purim celebration and carnival, which would have taken place in the Jaffe Auditorium. “It was a hard decision, but the setup for it was so complicated and we knew there were other Purim events elsewhere, so the only prudent thing to do was to cancel it,” Broder said.
On Friday, the temple building committee walked through the facility with a contractor to “pick a lane to travel to get the facility up and running as soon as possible,” Broder said.
There will be no path to reentry to the studio of prominent Seattle artist Akiva Segan: The city of Seattle declared unsafe the Pioneer Square building in which he works after the earthquake created a brand-new entrance — a large hole in the wall of an upper floor. Segan is best known for his series of Holocaust remembrance drawings series “Under the Wings of G-D,” which he has been working on since 1991. He said his artwork was not damaged in the quake and he and a few friends crossed the police tape and removed as much as they could from the building soon afterward. At the end of last week, he was unsure of the fate of several large pieces and is in need of a new earthquake-safe place to store his work.
“I’m afraid the city may condemn the building. My nerves? Frayed! Nonetheless I’m really thankful I’ve got most of the “Wings” works out and even though I haven’t a clue where to get them stored — an earthquake proof and fireproof safe building is my quest — at least I’ve got them, well almost all of them,” Segan wrote in an e-mail to friends and supporters.