Celebrating the Past and Embracing the Future: Cornerstone Ceremonies
On Sunday, November 13 at 1pm, the Museum at Eldridge Street will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the laying of the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s cornerstone. One of our interns provides some historical context.
On Sunday morning, November 14, 1886, a community of Jewish immigrants gathered on the Lower East Side to lay the cornerstone for a new house of worship. Less than a year later, on September 4 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue opened its doors. It served as a spiritual haven for the growing numbers of Eastern Europeans who were searching for a space in their new adopted home, New York City, where they could study and pray according to the customs of the Old World.
The laying of the cornerstone was a lavish festivity and congregations spared no expense in their efforts to shape a religious fellowship. It also reflected the integrationist efforts of the immigrants. The foundation rites merged Jewish, Christian and American customs to assert the institution’s devotion to the neighborhood, city, and nation and the immigrants’ commitments to strengthen American values.
The event served as a platform to celebrate the congregation and the Jewish community in New York City, but it also served to address the American public. The laudatory media coverage of these events represented the recognition that the congregation longed for.
The list of invitees included local and uptown officials: politicians, sheriffs, judges, and educators, both Christian and Jewish. Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes from the congregation Shearith Israel, Rabbi Yitskhok Margolies from the downtown Pike Street Synagogue, Sender Jarmulowsky, the congregation’s president, and Nathan Hutkoff, the congregation’s treasurer took center stage at the cornerstone ceremony for the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The congregation’s leaders addressed the crowds in English and German while they hailed America as the land of freedom where the Jewish community could flourish.
According to historian Arthur A. Goren, the ritual often included depositing a time capsule in the niche hollowed out in the lower half of the stone. Though there is no indication that this is the case at Eldridge Street, if you were to take a glimpse into one of those containers, you might expect to discover: “a history of the United States, the history of the congregation, the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the congregation, lists of the names of the trustees, the building committee, members, the program of the ceremony, coins, (…) from one cent to five dollars, and copies of the daily papers and the Jewish weeklies.” The array of items reflected both the American patriotism and the Jewish particularities of the congregation. More traditional synagogues preferred to emphasize the ethno-religious elements of the congregation. For instance, Goren claims that besides the lists of national and congregational leaders, and a history of the synagogue, the capsule used at the cornerstone ceremony for the Shearith Israel congregation in New York contained mainly Jewish artifacts: “a Hebrew prayer book and the bible, a marriage contract, phylacteries, mezuzah, vials with holy earth from Jerusalem, stone from the western wall and foundation of the Temple.”
Uniting elements of the Old World and the New World, past and present, the Jewish congregations of New York City blended Americanization and Judaism and in the process reinvented a new collective identity.
Goren, Arthur A. “Public Ceremonies Defining Central Synagogue.” In Elizabeth Blackmore and Arthur A. Goren. Congregating and Consecrating at Central Synagogue. New York, NY: Central Synagogue, 2003.
We hope you can join us on November 13 for our 125th Anniversary Cornerstone Celebration! Until then, here is a link on YouTube of one of the songs you might expect to hear at the event:
 Goren, Arthur A., “Public Ceremonies Defining Central Synagogue,” in Elizabeth Blackmore and Arthur A. Goren. Congregating and Consecrating at Central Synagogue (New York, NY: Central Synagogue, 2003), 47.
 Ibid., 59.