David Cohen: A Founder and His Legacy
By Meredith Carroll, Museum at Eldridge Street Summer Intern
When Michael Andron first stumbled upon the Museum at Eldridge Street several years ago, he knew that his family had roots on the Lower East Side. He knew that his great-grandfather actively supported Jewish education in the neighborhood. What he didn’t know is that this great-grandfather, one David Cohen, helped found and run the Eldridge Street Synagogue itself.
This Monday, Andron returned to Eldridge Street — this time, with his wife Lillian and granddaughter Sarah. Sarah recently celebrated her bat mitzvah, and the couple brought her to New York in hopes of acquainting her with her family’s close ties to the city. They also brought photographs of the Cohen family — the first images of David Cohen and his wife Minna that the Museum has seen.
Andron still recalls the thrill of recognition when he first saw his great-grandparents’ names in the museum’s exhibition. Soon, he discovered that his great-grandfather had been not just a congregant but also a president and a founder.
Like many of his fellow worshipers, Cohen immigrated to America from Eastern Europe — in his case from Suwalk, Lithuania. The year was 1868. Cohen was just 14 years old. He began his life in America peddling housewares — perhaps, as with many Jewish immigrants, self-employment was the only way he could observe the Sabbath. Whatever the case, Cohen quickly climbed the economic ladder, ascending to the presidency of Gold and Cohen Realtors.
Real estate markets, particularly in the thriving Jewish communities of Harlem and the Lower East Side, were booming. And men like Cohen seized this opportunity to realize not just their dreams of prosperity but also their aspirations for the Jewish community.
Cohen used his new-found wealth to support synagogues and religious education. He presided over the Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary, soon to become Yeshiva University. He supported the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ), the Uptown Talmud Torah, Beth Israel and Lebanon Hospitals, Bronx Machzikei Talmud Torah, and the Hebrew Teachers’ Institute.
And in 1887, aged just 33, Cohen helped found and fund the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Along with Sender Jarmulowsky, Isaac Gellis, and Nathan Hutkoff, he served as one of its first four presidents. For many years after, Cohen remained an active member of the congregation.
But the real estate boom that fueled Cohen’s rise also sparked tension within the synagogue. Like many wealthier congregants, the Cohens eventually moved uptown. While Cohen still worked and prayed on the Lower East Side during the week, Orthodox prohibitions on using transportation on Shabbat meant he had to pray closer to home on Saturdays. Along with other erstwhile congregants, he petitioned the Eldridge Street Synagogue to open and finance a branch in Harlem. At first, the proposal seemed likely to succeed. But a merger with congregation Anshe Lubz emboldened the proposal’s opponents. When the uptown faction established a synagogue nevertheless, Eldridge Street was barred from recognizing or funding it. Change, as always in New York’s immigrant community, was underway. David Cohen, pulled by shifting demographics, found himself moving away from the very synagogue he work so hard to establish.
Ultimately, though, Cohen’s legacy was one of giving. In the Eldridge Street Synagogue and in his other causes, he created a place where real estate magnates could mingle with pushcart vendors and garment workers, brought together by shared traditions and aspirations. His descendants took note of his example. His daughter, Blanche Cohen Nirenstein, created numerous foundations to advance education for Jewish women. His son, Elias, and grandson, Seymour, created yet another charitable foundation.
It is a legacy that Andron hopes to pass on to Sarah — along with a shared love of Broadway shows and “as much history as [they] can cram in” on their trip to New York. Back at the Museum, Andron recounts some family stories.
“Apparently,” he says, grinning, “[Cohen] had quite a temper.” Cohen often disappeared for long walks following an outburst, returning with silver or jewelry for his wife Minna. Minna Cohen, it was rumored, had one of the neighborhood’s largest jewelry and silver collections.
One of Andron’s fondest memories, though, hearkens back to the synagogue his great-grandfather helped found. He first visited the Museum with a middle school theatre group. During the tour, two particularly talented singers ascended the bimah and burst into traditional Jewish folk song. They sang, Andron recalls, “like angels.” A fitting moment indeed for a great-grandson to reconnect with a synagogue founder’s legacy.