Then and now: Eldridge Street Synagogue

Interior: Museum at Eldridge Street
Interior: Museum at Eldridge Street

“I made a couple of calls and believe the sign will be safe,” she said. And so, for the moment, would be one other vestige of the Jewish Lower East Side.

In reading In Chinatown, Remembering the Origins of a 126 -Year-Old Synagogue I did what I always do and go down a rabbit hole of research.

The Eldridge Street temple, the first synagogue built by Eastern European Jews on the Lower East Side, the was completed in 1887 to the designs of the Herter Brothers, architects. It is the home of Congregation Khal Adath Jeshurun with Anshe Lubtz, another congregation that joined after the building opened.

”An Orthodox synagogue follows the congregation,” Justice Bookson said, ”or the congregation follows the synagogue, because we can’t ride on the Sabbath.”

The Museum at Eldridge Street aka the Eldridge St. Synagogue is one of the prettiest buildings on the Lower East Side and one of the most amazing interiors in the city. It’s sad to think of how far it fell during the time that the Orthodox population of the Lower East Side dwindled. Sad, but not surprising, due to the general state of the Lower East Side in the 70s and 80s.

Justice Bookson noted that the temple’s centennial is close to that of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. ”The immigrants passed by the statue,” he said, ”and came right here to this neighborhood. So we’re right on the mark. Of course, we hope to restore the synagogue with a lot less money.”

After the 90-minute gathering yesterday, after the applause and amens, the sanctuary was empty again. For now, it will remain silent. And waiting.

They did that, and even more.

Never mind the 126 year old Congregation, the Friends of the Eldridge Street Project is older than I am. By the time I started to work with the Museum in 2007, it was called the Eldridge Street Project and was in the middle of the grand reopening. The amazing Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival was seven years old and the museum/synagogue was well on the way to being the marquee tourist destination that it is.Kiki Smith’s wonderful window was installed three years later and it seemed as if the restoration was complete in time for the 125th anniversary.

I feel that I’m lucky to work so closely with the museum. I know more about it then the average NYC resident. Maybe even more than the average Culture Vulture, but there’s so much about which I wasn’t aware. The article about the grand reopening is an amazing overview of the building and congregation’s history. We as a city are lucky to still have it as a part of our present.

By the mid-1950s, without funds or a substantial congregation, the main sanctuary was sealed shut; only a remnant of the original congregation continued to use the smaller ground-floor study hall. Then, in 1971, the water-damaged main sanctuary was surveyed with astonishment by Gerald R. Wolfe, a New York University professor, who founded the Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Fifteen years later, the preservationist and journalist Roberta Brandes Gratz was so taken by its latent promise that she started the Eldridge Street Project, helped obtain its landmark status and began a fund-raising drive that gradually brought the sanctuary back to life.

But what purpose could such a place serve if its religious function and community were gone? Rather than leave it a monument to an earlier faith, the Eldridge Street Project turned the building into a symbol of a contemporary, secular faith. In the 1990s, the synagogue, its renovation unfinished, became a museum, a center, in the words of the Project, “for historical reflection, aesthetic inspiration and spiritual renewal.”

I had no idea of the buildings parallels with a series of tenements in Alphabet City. The history of the Lower East Side is really a connected one. The Synagogue’s own restoration led to the discovery of a mikvah on the adjacent property at 5 Allen St (now a Howard Johnson)

A clay pipe or a pottery shard is a fine day’s work for an urban archaeologist. Celia J. Bergoffen found a bathhouse.

I’m fascinated by the Lower East Side’s history. That’s obvious each time I do one of the Conservancy’s tours (and return for more like I did this past Sunday). I contemplate moving there if I win the lotto, but sometimes I wonder if I like its present as much as its past.

Further Reading:

Lower East Side Then and Now

for all the tours I’ve done with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, I had only done a mini tour of the Lower East Side. It was time to fix that, so I joined this weekend’s tour, the Lower East Side Then and Now. Among other things, I was excited that it included Bialystoker, a building about which I’ve been curious for some time.

I can say without a doubt that this was one of the most interesting tours I’ve done, and also one of the most stunning.

It was a perfect spring day with scarcely a cloud in the sky, which I think led to the vibrant light within the buildings we visited, but I also think Bialystoker would be beautiful wrapped in black construction paper.

While Bialystoker is best known for its mazalot (great information and more and photos), I found the architectural history even more amazing. Yes, the presence of zodiac signs in an orthodox shul is slightly surprising, but challenges of dealing with the conversion of what was the Willets St. Church into Bialystoker Synagogue in 1905 was awe inspiring. I also had no idea that the Manhattan Schist from which it was built was from a quarry practically next door on Pitt St. While the building looks distinctly Jewish with its Stars of David, there are telling pieces of its christian history, including the stained glass and an altar-looking Ark of the Torah, for which the congregation received dispensation for it not facing east. That is believed to be one of the reasons for the extensive imagery of Israel in the synagogue’s interior. While I knew Shelly Silver worshipped at Bialystoker, I had no idea it was once home to Bugsy Siegel and Max Lansky, father of Meyer Lansky. Living history, not all positive.

From Bialystoker we headed down E. Broadway past:

  • some of the original buildings of the Henry Street Settlement;
  • the recently landmarked Bialystoker Center (called “one of the last remaining physical reminders of the Jewish Lower East Side”);
  • a few of the remaining shteibl of what was once Shteibl Row;
  • the Forward Building (yep, an interesting mix of then and then with Tatum O’Neal trying to buy crack in Seward Park); and
  • an unexpected view of One World Trade with the Manhattan Municipal Building.

It’s a really striking mix of then and now. While the neighborhood has changed (and will continue to change with SPURA-more on that later), there’s still a swing back that has been going on since 2000. While the old shteibl aren’t expected to survive long term as their congregations die off, the young returners are worshipping at Bialystoker again.

From E. Broadway we had a quick detour up Norfolk Street to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the shell of the oldest Russian, orthodox congregation in the US. This was the synagogue that first caught my attention back in November and which I’d thought about recently while wondering how much of the neighborhood SUPRA would touch. It turns out that in addition to the building in which the Conservancy’s visitor center is located, SPURA will come right up against the old Norfolk Street Shul. Hopefully the visitor center will find a new home within Essex Crossing, but there’s no doubt the development is going to change the neighborhood. I find it amusing or amazing, not honestly sure which, that both SPURA and the Second Avenue Subway are finally happening.

Our next and final stop was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only remaining congregation of Romaniote Jews in the Western Hemisphere. Another amazing interior, and the women’s section doubles as a museum.  This was one of the many landmarked places we saw/visited on the tour that it’s going to be interesting to see how the landmarks of the old neighborhood hit among the new SPURA buildings. I found the Museum Director’s explanation that they’re “less neurotically Orthodox” an interesting one. If not for the gorgeous torah scrolls I’m not sure I’d have realized this was an orthodox shul.

With Bialystoker today, Eldridge St. many times over and Stanton St. and Angel Orensanz last November, I think I’ve hit all the iconic synagogues of the Lower East Side. I’ve also seen some of the amazing uptown architecture, but alas I haven’t been in any. I’m especially glad that I was able to visit Angel Orensanz as it is currently closed due to structural issues and there is no timeline for when/if it will reopen.

All in all, another amazing day on the Lower East Side.

Crossing Delancey

with photos.

on a day where crossing 1st Ave. due to the marathon was the bigger odyssey. Luckily, the m15 was (sort of) running and I was able to make it down for the Jewish Heritage Festival.Before I made it to the Festival, however, I caught a peek of a broken-down synagogue on what I realized was Norfolk St through the Seward Park playground. With time to kill, I walked down Essex to Delancey and back up Norfolk for a better look. It turns out it was Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, formerly the Norfolk St. Baptist Church/Alanson Methodist Episcopal Church, now a landmark in some serious disrepair. Sad. While it appears it is no longer in immediate danger of being torn down, it appears that another piece of living history is gone.

From there it was a hop-skip to the Conservancy’s visitor center where, by virtue of the numbers, I did Crossing Delancey with Marty of Manhattan Walks, the guide who I loved from the Upper West Side and Jewish Harlem tours. I was pleased to be joined by Jeff Dobbins of Walks of New York, Howard Teich of the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative, among others familiar faces from the Conservancy’s tours.

Because I hadn’t planned to go today or put much thought into the tour I was going to take, I hadn’t done my homework. I was pleased when the first stop was the Stanton Street Shul, one of the LES synagogues by which I am most fascinated. Although its congregation was mostly LES immigrant poor, a ton of love and detail was put into this tenement shul, especially the mazalot. There is an amazing amount of history in this 20′ x 100′ space.  While Eldridge St. remains the crown jewel of synagogue restoration, others like Stanton St., Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and Emory Roth haven’t yet been as lucky. I hope that tide turns soon. Stanton St. is amazing as one of the last remaining tenement synagogues (from a high of 700), all which had an interesting role in NYC history.

After Stanton Street, we headed to Clinton St. and Congregation Chasam Sopher, one of the oldest buildings whose continuous history was as a synagogue. It was originally built in 1853 by Congregation Rodeph Sholem, now located on the Upper West Side. Yes, more congregation musical chairs. Chasam Sopher has an interesting history, both in its continued existence as a free synagogue, but also how it suvived the down turn of the 1970s-80s and is now thriving due to the  influx of young Orthodox families on the Lower East Side.

Although the tour continued down Orchard Street, my final stop was at Angel Orensanz, a cultural center whose work I love. I had no idea that it was (one of) the previous homes of Anche Chesed, nor that it was the oldest surviving building in New York City built specifically as a synagogue, and the first synagogue structure built on the Lower East Side. It is now a venue that is available for rent (especially weddings!) and has been home to some amazing cultural programs. I hope that rental income allows it to thrive because this architecture cannot be lost to history.

I was sad to leave the tour, but it whet my appetite for even more exploration of the Lower East Side, which will hopefully come soon.