History of the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Arrival & Aspiration

Between 1880 and 1924, two and a half million East European Jews came to the United States. Close to 85 percent of them came to New York City, and approximately 75 percent of those settled initially on the Lower East Side.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened its doors at 12 Eldridge Street on September 4, 1887, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays. Hundreds of newly arrived immigrants from Russia and Poland gathered here to pray, socialize and build a community. It was the first time in America that Jews of Eastern Europe had built a synagogue from the ground up.

Dozens of Stars of David decorate the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s façade. Here in America, Jews could worship openly and freely. The synagogue was a proud declaration of newly- found religious freedom for the synagogue’s immigrant founders. The synagogue was also emblematic of their economic aspirations. With its soaring 50-foot ceiling and exuberant Moorish-style interior, Eldridge Street provided an inspiring contrast to the crowded tenements, factories and shops of the Lower East Side.

For fifty years, the synagogue flourished. Men and women came in their finery, and mounted policemen patrolled the crowds. The congregation hired world-renowned cantors and in 1918 hired Rabbi Aharon Yudelovitch, the first in a series of famed Talmudists and speakers. Thousands participated in religious services in the building’s heyday, from its opening through the 1920s.

Depression & Decline

In the 1920s-40s, membership began to dwindle as immigration quotas limited the number of new arrivals and the Great Depression affected the congregation’s fortunes. Following World War II, many people fled the city for the suburbs. From the 1940s on, the main sanctuary was used less and less. Without the resources needed to heat and maintain the sanctuary, a small but stalwart congregation continued to worship in the building’s more intimate house of study, or Bes Medrash on the synagogue’s lower level.

Restoration & Renewal

“It was as though the synagogue was held up by strings from heaven,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, founder of the Museum at Eldridge Street, of her first impression of the synagogue in the early 1980s. Pigeons roosted in the balconies and benches were covered with dust. Gratz and others rallied to save the building. They formed the non-sectarian Eldridge Street Project, pre-cursor to the Museum at Eldridge Street. The synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and more than $20 million was raised to restore it to its original grandeur.

The Museum completed the Eldridge Street Synagogue restoration in December 2007, the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. The restoration received nearly every major preservation honor, including the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation 2008 Preservation Award. The crowning piece of the Museum’s restoration is a magnificent new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

Today the Eldridge Street Synagogue is home to the Museum at Eldridge Street, which welcomes people from around the world for tours, school programs, concerts, lectures, festivals and other cultural events. The building also continues to be home to Kahal Adath Jeshurun. This small Orthodox congregation has never missed a Saturday or holiday service in the more than 120 years since the synagogue first opened.