The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened in 1887. It was built by Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun, descended from the first congregation of Russian Jews in America. Today it is hailed as one of New York City’s most beautiful historic houses of worship and is home to the Museum at Eldridge Street.
The synagogue was built during a period of mass immigration (1880-1924) when more than 25 million immigrants, including more than 2.5 million Jews, came to the United States. 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 – and literal sanctuary – for immigrants from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries. Its bold Star-of-David patterns proudly proclaimed the newly-found religious freedom of its immigrant founders. With its soaring 50-foot ceiling, decorative painted finishes, and luminous stained glass, the synagogue 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, the first in a series of famed Talmudists and speakers. Thousands participated in religious services during the building’s heyday, from its opening through the 1930s.
The immigrants who established the Eldridge Street Synagogue 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 experienced a decline with 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, and fully sealed off the main sanctuary sometime in the early 1960s. Although they continued to worship in the building, never missing a Sabbath service, the synagogue’s glorious main sanctuary severely deteriorated during this time.
In 1986, one hundred years after the synagogue first opened, new generations recognized the significance of this historic structure and rallied to save the building, forming 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. Early investigations showed that emergency stabilization was needed; if no work was done, the building would collapse.
The Museum conducted emergency repairs, and secured National Historic Landmark designation for the building in1996. 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. A monumental stained glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans was installed in 2010, and the Museum’s visitor center and permanent exhibition opened in 2014. 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 a small group of worshippers who have rarely missed a Sabbath or holiday service in the years since the synagogue first opened.