The Museum at Eldridge Street’s landmark home – the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue – is an important part of Lower East Side Jewish history. The Synagogue opened in 1887. Its congregation, Kahal Adath Jeshurun, descended from the first congregation of Russian Jews in America. Today it is the only remaining marker of the old Jewish Lower East Side that is open to the public.
The synagogue was built during a period of mass immigration (1880-1924). More than 25 million immigrants, including more than 2.5 million Jews, came to the United States at that time. Close to 85 percent of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to New York City; and approximately 75 percent of those settled initially on the Lower East Side.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was spiritual home for immigrants from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries. Here in America, they proudly displayed their new found religious freedom. Stars-of-David were mounted on the synagogue’s rooftop towers and etched into its wooden front doors. The magnificent building provided an inspiring contrast to the crowded streets, 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 to serve as their first full-time pulpit rabbi. He was the first in a series of famed Talmudists and speakers. Thousands of people took party in religious services during the building’s heyday.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s immigrant founders were diverse both economically and geographically. According to one 1892 account, “Lawyers, merchants, artisans, clerks, peddlers, and laborers, compose the dense but changeful throng. All are one in respect to race and faith, but many in regard to birthplace and speech. E Pluribus Unum finds new meaning here.”
The building began to decline following the introduction of the 1924 Immigrant Quota Laws and the increasing exodus to outer boroughs. A small but stalwart congregation relocated to the synagogue’s lower level chapel in the 1940s. They closed off the grand main sanctuary which was too expensive to maintain. The synagogue’s glorious main sanctuary severely deteriorated during this time. Still the small congregation continued to worship in the building, never missing a Sabbath service.
In 1986, one hundred years after the synagogue first opened, new generations rallied to save the building. They formed the non-sectarian Eldridge Street Project, pre-cursor to the Museum at Eldridge Street.
“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, benches were covered with dust, and stained glass windows had warped with time. The building required emergency stabilization; if no work was done, it would collapse.
The Museum conducted emergency repairs, and secured National Historic Landmark designation for the building in 1996. The Museum also gained recognition of the synagogue from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the City of New York – for its architectural beauty, its significance as part of the American immigrant experience, and its revitalization as a vital heritage center for people of all backgrounds.
The Museum completed the Eldridge Street Synagogue restoration in December 2007, the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. In 2010, the Museum commissioned a monumental stained glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. The window is a symbol of the continuing life in the building. In 2014 the Museum completed a visitor center and permanent exhibition.
Today the Museum at Eldridge Street welcomes people from around the world. They visit for tours, school programs, concerts, lectures, festivals and other cultural events. The building also continues to be home to a small group of worshippers who have rarely missed a Sabbath or holiday service in the years since the synagogue first opened.