The Museum at Eldridge Street
The Museum at Eldridge Street is housed in the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a magnificent National Historic Landmark that has been meticulously restored. Opened in 1887, the synagogue is the first great house of worship built in America by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today, it is the only remaining marker of the great wave of Jewish migration to the Lower East Side that is open to a broad public who wish to visit Jewish New York. Exhibits, tours, cultural events and educational programs tell the story of Jewish immigrant life, explore architecture and historic preservation, inspire reflection on cultural continuity, and foster collaboration and exchange between people of all faiths, heritages and interests.
Yiddish signs, Jewish ritual objects, archival documents, artifacts from the building’s restoration, and excerpts from the Museum’s collection of oral histories form the heart of the permanent exhibition. The Museum’s interactive displays on immigrant history, Jewish practice and historic preservation were the recipient of the American Association of Museum’s Gold Award for Interactive Installation. The upstairs Women’s Gallery is home to an exhibit on the synagogue restoration. Our Family History Center features a display of historic Lower East Side photographs, and a small rotating exhibit of Lower East Side family stories. A monumental stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans is the only 21st century addition to this historic landmark.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is a National Historic Landmark – one of only two synagogues so designated in New York City. The synagogue’s restoration was conducted with a “combination of rigor and affection” in the words of architecture critic Paul Goldberger. Following the restoration, the Museum received awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic, along with numerous other preservation honors. Additionally, First Lady Michelle Obama designated the Museum’s docents a national treasure with a Preserve America Stewards Award.
A Synagogue in Chinatown
While the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s neighborhood was once the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, today it is a part of a vibrant Chinatown. The Museum honors its place in this continuing immigrant context welcoming visitors of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. Further, every June the Museum presents our signature Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival. This event celebrates the diverse Jewish, Chinese and Puerto Rican communities of the neighborhood and features music, folk arts, food and crafts enjoyed by thousands of people. Today, the Museum at Eldridge Street stands as a dazzling addition to our nation’s cultural, historic and architectural landscape.
Mission and Value Statement
The Museum at Eldridge Street, a non-sectarian cultural organization in Lower Manhattan, was founded with a mission to restore and interpret its home, the historic 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, and serve people of all backgrounds with educational and cultural programs inspired by the landmark building and its gateway Lower East Side neighborhood.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is a magnificent national historic landmark built by immigrants from Eastern Europe. For the Jewish immigrant of a century ago, the synagogue was a tangible monument to the religious freedom and economic opportunity afforded by their new land. Today, it is a powerful symbol of the historical and cultural contributions brought to America by generations of immigrants.
At the Museum at Eldridge Street we:
- Welcome people of all faiths and cultures.
- Teach and reinforce tolerance.
- Believe diversity is our strength.
- Believe openness and exchange makes us stronger.
- Celebrate the special role that the Eldridge Street Synagogue plays in making Jewish life and immigrant culture available to all visitors, whatever their background.
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.
Bonnie Dimun, Executive Director
Bonnie brings a wealth of experience in the non-profit, corporate and university arenas. She founded and was president of Dynamics for Change, a management consulting firm focusing on client relations, business development, and alliance partnerships. Bonnie also served as National Director of Education and Public Policy at Hadassah, the world’s largest women’s non-profit organization. There she created and managed the Leadership, Education and Training Center. Prior to that, she was Executive Director of Organization Advancement for Middlesex County College. Bonnie holds an Ed.D from Columbia University as well as two degrees from Rider University.
My favorite place: Next to new visitors as they walk into the synagogue for the first time and truly gasp with the magnificence of the place. My other favorite is when the sun shines through the stained-glass windows and the magnificent reflection is on the walls, floors and halls. It takes my breath away.
Board of Directors
Kenneth L. Stein
Roberta Brandes Gratz
Founder and President Emeritus
Ester R. Fuchs
Jeffrey R. Gural
Jonathan L. Mechanic
David L. Moore
Michele Cohn Tocci
Jeffrey S. Wilks