This post has been adapted from one originally written in 2020.
This Saturday, September 5th, is perhaps the biggest day of the year at 12 Eldridge Street. On that day in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue officially opened to the public. That makes us 134 years young this week!
Anyone who has visited our building might be under the impression that it would take a long time to build and decorate such a space. But remarkably, construction only took ten months! They began at the very end of 1886. And on September 4th, 1887, the Lower East Side gained its first purpose-built, large-scale synagogue.
Lower East Side residents in 1887 may have been a bit stunned to set their eyes on the completed synagogue. It would have been like nothing else in the neighborhood. The building was much more architecturally ornate than its neighbors in the tenement district, and much taller. It’s not that they were the only congregation in the neighborhood – there were a couple other large congregations in the area at the time. But it was more likely for Eastern European Jewish immigrants to pray in converted churches or other buildings never actually designed to be Jewish sacred spaces. Those venues were much more affordable than building your own grand shul. So the establishment of a synagogue built to a congregation’s exact specifications was a major triumph – for the neighborhood and for the entire community of Jewish immigrants in America.
And the neighborhood showed up to celebrate that September. The congregation send out thousands of invitations to New Yorkers to come join in the opening festivities. Newspapers reported an “immense number of people” converging on the block for the opening, with “crowds extended to the street.” As the numbers grew, it was reported that order became difficult to maintain. Clearly the opening of this building had caused quite a stir.
The opening event itself caused a commotion in the press, as well. The New York Herald reported that the hours-long opening ceremony included chanting of psalms, lighting the eternal light, many speeches. The Torah was “solemnly deposited in its crimson lined sanctuary.” Not all the reviews were quite as nonbiased. The congregation’s adherence to Orthodoxy drew attention and some criticism. Immigrants to America have always been under scrutiny for being too foreign, too different, too other. There was even prejudice within the American-Jewish community – many “uptown Jews” looked down on the more religious Jewish immigrants in the downtown neighborhoods like Eldridge Street’s. (Read more about that in our recent blog post on the topic.) But many other publications were positive about the congregation’s behavior and decorum on opening day, citing “splendid” oration and a refined quality to the space and its people.
Those positive evaluations were exactly the congregation’s goal. The entire synagogue – grand architecture, strict governance – was designed in pursuit of an elevated social standing. They knew what the establishment thought about people of their kind, and they were determined to upend those prejudices. They wanted the American dream – social mobility and the freedom to practice any custom while pursuing it. A tall order, to be sure. But they had grand ambitions. And September 4th, 1887 marked the first day this congregation could embody those ambitions at 12 Eldridge.
Much of the information from this post can be found in Annie Polland’s book Landmark of the Spirit. Annie wrote an entire chapter about September 4th’s opening day festivities and implications. If this post interested you, I encourage you to get the book! You can get a copy by stopping by the Museum anytime during opening hours – just be mindful of our September holiday closures.
Chelsea Dowell is the Director of Public Engagement at the Museum at Eldridge Street.