Here at the Museum at Eldridge Street, 1887 is always pointed to as the year of the congregation’s genesis. That’s due, of course, to the very obvious reason that this was the year of completion for their grand house of worship. However, this is not the true start of this synagogue’s Jewish community and life! The full story is more complex, and older, than that. Eldridge Street’s origin is really a tale of two synagogues – not just one.
Long before this magnificent building came to be, a small group of Eastern European Orthodox Jewish immigrants arrived on America’s shores in 1852 – three decades before the famous and massive waves of Jewish immigration would begin. In the heart of the Lower East Side, these early immigrants formed the first Eastern European Orthodox congregation in the United States. Led by Rabbi Abraham Joseph Ash, they called themselves Beth Hamedrash (“House of Study”). The congregation moved from location to location in their early years, which was not uncommon for congregations at the time. Finally, in 1856, they settled into a building they had purchased on Allen Street. However, success and stability would continue to elude Beth Hamedrash! A disagreement between the Rabbi and lay leadership over who deserved credit for procuring the Allen Street location soon turned into a massive conflict, leading to a great schism amongst the congregation. A once-united group split into two, one siding with Rabbi Ash, and the other with the lay leader. Rabbi Ash and his followers officially left the community to form a new synagogue, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (“Great House of Study”). The lay leadership kept both the name Beth Hamedrash and the Allen Street location, until financial difficulties led them to a merge with another congregation, creating the new Kahal Adath Jeshurun (“Community of the People of the Righteous Way”) congregation in 1884. Now that the stage is set with the origin story of these estranged brother congregations, we can trace the similarities and differences in their long histories, and come to an understanding of their roles in shaping and influencing the history of the Jewish Lower East Side.
The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol congregation moved around to various buildings on the Lower East Side before finally settling into the location that would become their permanent home at 60 Norfolk Street. The congregation purchased a Gothic Revival style building, which had once operated as a church for two different Christian denominations, in 1885 for $45,000. While they had not constructed their own, original synagogue building like Kahal Adath Jeshurun would in 1887, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol carried out interior alterations to ensure that this building would become their own. However, they maintained the impressive exterior featuring grand architectural details such as the “flying buttress and peaked windows,” that remained from the original 1850s design. Beyond installing the necessary religious components needed for a synagogue, the Gothic roof spaces had, “been painted a bright blue, studded with stars,” which seems familiar! The congregation at the Eldridge Street Synagogue clearly had the same idea years later when designing their own grand sanctuary!
Much like all siblings, things could sometimes get a little tense between Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and Kahal Adath Jeshurun. While Kahal Adath Jeshurun had built their synagogue from the ground-up, creating the first Eastern European Orthodox Jewish grand house of worship, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s location was larger and able to support a congregation of over 1,000 members at its height. Each likely sought to attract the most wealthy and distinguished people possible to their congregation and be the most influential synagogue in the area. Both synagogues filled rabbinic and cantorial positions with the most famous Eastern European Jewish figures around. Bringing in an impressive and well-known cantor who could lead services in the traditional Eastern European Orthodox style was extremely important for a new synagogue, as they were essential in attracting new members to the congregation. If we could make such a comparison, it could almost be described as a cantor race between the different synagogues, each scrambling to get the best and brightest to be their cantor. In this era of the “cantorial craze,” Kahal Adath Jeshurun was particularly successful in their ability to recruit the one and only Pinhas Minkowski, celebrity cantor from Odessa, Russia.
While Kahal Adath Jeshurun may have triumphed in the cantorial arena, the legacies of two of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s rabbis have better survived the test of time. Rabbi Jacob Joseph served as the one and only Chief Rabbi of New York City while he was the official rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Installed in 1888, Rabbi Joseph’s brilliance and stellar reputation contributed to the great renown surrounding Beth Hamedrash Hagadol as a religious and cultural institution. Much later on in the synagogue’s history, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry became Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s leader in 1952. His personal character and great dedication to the protection of the synagogue was a key factor in its survival through times of great neighborhood change, immigration restrictions, and financial difficulties, as we shall see later on.
Yet, even when the two synagogues seemed to be quite competitive with each other, this would not stop them from working together when it benefitted the Orthodox Jewish community as a whole. One of the most significant acts of cooperation between Eldridge Street Synagogue and Beth Hamesdrash Hagadol, as well as other Orthodox synagogues in New York City, was the creation of the Union of Orothodox Jewish Congregations of America, more generally known as the Orthodox Union (OU). While disagreements and differences may have often defined the relationship between Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and Kahal Adath Jeshurun, at the end of the day they recognized that their position within the incredibly small Jewish minority living in a predominantly Christian country required their ability to lay aside their differences and band together when necessary. As we saw back then and continue to see today, when the general Jewish community is under threat or when there is a movement trying to advance important causes that would benefit many, Jewish people, from all denominations, will come together to protect and better both their specific communities and American Jewry as a whole.
The start of the 1920s brought impactful changes to the Lower East Side neighborhood and its synagogues. Once home to a flourishing Jewish presence, the community began to change and decline as residents moved uptown, and restrictive immigration policies slowed the waves of Jewish immigrants that had been flooding into the United States. Matters were only made worse when the Great Depression began at the end of 1929. With a dwindling membership and inability to maintain their levels of funding, Kahal Adath Jeshurun could no longer afford to maintain the grand main sanctuary. In the 1940s, they had to make the difficult decision to close it off and move services down to the modest first floor. While the magnificent sanctuary on Eldridge Street slowly deteriorated behind its locked doors, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was also struggling with financial difficulties. They faced their first threat of demolition in 1946 as much needed improvements and repairs had not been taken care of. However, they continued to maintain a relatively large congregation through the 1940s and 1950s, and the congregation was especially strengthened by their leader at the time, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry.
Before entering his position at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol in 1952, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry had already gained quite a reputation. Famous for being one of the very few Jewish legal scholars (posek) to survive the Holocaust young Rabbi Oshry, while imprisoned in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, answered questions on how to best follow Jewish law during such an oppressive and life-threatening time. Putting himself at great risk to do this critical work, Rabbi Oshry was thankfully not discovered, and was able to recover the fragments of his responsa (written replies or decisions from a rabbinic authority in response to a submitted questions/inquiries on matters of Jewish law) that he had buried in the Kovno Ghetto (these fragments would later be compiled into a monumental work on Jewish law during the Holocaust). After the war, Rabbi Oshry eventually made his way to the United States, dedicating the next fifty years of his life to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. It was his dedication and commitment to preserving both the synagogue’s physical structure and the congregation of Beth Hamesdrash Hagadol that led to the designation of the synagogue as a New York City Landmark in 1967 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Once again under threat of demolition, the application filed by Rabbi Oshry and its acceptance saved the building again – for the time being.
However, all was still not well for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. As the years passed, the number of congregants continued to decrease, leading to the continued deterioration of the building. While the Eldridge Street Synagogue had begun to receive support from the Eldridge Street Project, dedicated to renovating and preserving the building after the sanctuary’s rediscovery in the 1980s, Beth Hamesrash Hagadol began to face the major troubles that would unfortunately lead to its downfall. One thing came after the other; a storm in 1997 blew out the main two-story window and was left unrepaired, allowing the elements in. Then, an electrical fire in 2001 left severe damage to the roof, ceiling, and interior decor. Attempts to raise money for desperately needed repairs continued until 2006, but the Rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol at the time, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, made the decision to close the synagogue in 2007 due to hazardous conditions. This was followed by a vacate order issued by the NYC Department of Buildings in 2011.
It was at this point that the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy decided to step in and attempt to save the building from complete destruction. While originally open to doing whatever could possibly be done, conflict and friction between the Rabbi and conservators, specifically over financial issues, soon caused the efforts to fall apart. The situation was further worsened when grants that had been obtained in the early 2000s were either withdrawn due to the 2008 financial crisis or were now impossible to fulfill. As plans unraveled between the infighting, accusations, and inability to maintain funding, the last hope held by synagogue leadership was that developers would purchase the building. The idea was that the building “would be restored and redeveloped for residential use and a portion…would be retained by Beth Hamedrash Hagadol for a small sanctuary,” but that unpopular proposal also never came to light.
While the Eldridge Street Synagogue had by then come back to life and was thriving in its role as the magnificently restored historic testament to the Jewish Lower East Side, Beth Hamesdrash Hagadol was slowly dying, its days of glory long forgotten. The final blow came on May 14, 2017 when a massive fire broke out in the empty synagogue, destroying much of the historic building. At that point, the possibility of any restoration effort vanished, and the building was eventually demolished due to intense structural damage and instability.
When comparing and contrasting the stories of these two synagogues, the main question that comes to mind is how did Eldridge Street Synagogue manage to be saved, while Beth Hamedrash Hagadol met such a devastating end? Is it merely luck, coincidence, or perhaps the timing of when the restoration project began? Did it have something to do with those on the restoration team, and their ability to work more cohesively than those trying to save Beth Hamesdrash Hagadol? We can never know for sure. But in reflecting upon the rise and fall of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, it is critical to recognize that the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s ultimate fate could have mirrored that of Beth Hamesdrash Hagadol. To take the revitalization and preservation of Eldridge Street Synagogue for granted is a dishonor both to those who have dedicated themselves to maintaining it for future generations, and to all of the other historic buildings that have been lost to the ravages of time. When we marvel at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, we must also remember the story of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, in order to keep the memory of the lost brother congregation alive as well.
This blog post was written by Museum intern Hannah Berman:
My name is Hannah Berman, and I am so excited to have been an intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street for the past five months now! I graduated from Queens College with a Bachelor’s in History in May of 2020, and am now in my second year in the Archive and Public History M.A. Program at NYU. My research interests mainly focus on early American Jewish communities, and I am hoping to create a capstone project centered around Jewish-American Patriots during the American Revolution. Making my way into the professional museum world, I hope to focus on curation or exhibition design, but I am also very excited about the many other relevant skills I am developing and the knowledge I am gaining about the inner workings of small museums through this internship program. The magnificent Eldridge Street Synagogue is an incredible historic site, and I am so privileged to have the opportunity to contribute to both behind the scenes work and the more public-facing roles. As an Orthodox Jew myself, this experience will not only be professionally enriching, but also personally meaningful in many ways.