Tracing Jewish History – Five Historic Synagogues of America
Visitors to the Museum at Eldridge Street often ask if our landmark site – the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue – is the oldest synagogue in America. The answer is no. I was surprised to learn that the oldest synagogue is not in New York City, but in Newport, Rhode Island. Discovering this fact ignited an urge to learn more about the history of American synagogues.
While researching, I realized that the terms ‘synagogues’ and ‘congregations’ were not interchangeable. ‘Synagogue’ only refers to the building where Jews pray, and ‘congregation’ refers to a group of Jews who pray together.
Touro Synagogue – The Oldest Synagogue in America
The honor of oldest standing synagogue in the United States goes to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Sephardic Jews, a community originating from Spain and Portugal, built it in 1759. The congregation was part of the earliest wave of Jews to come to the United States, arriving as early as 1654 from Recife, Brazil. Jews first arrived in Newport in the 17th century. Increased commercial activity and immigration encouraged the community to construct their own synagogue. Architect Peter Harrison drew inspiration from Venetian architecture, ironically the city that created the first Jewish ghetto. Prayer services are still held on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The congregation maintains the traditional Sephardic practice of the synagogue’s founders.
St. Thomas – The Oldest Synagogue in Continuous Use
The St. Thomas Synagogue is not only the second oldest synagogue in the United States, but also claims be to the “oldest in continuous use.” Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who settled on the island to trade between Europe and the New World, built it in 1833. Today, it is spiritual home to permanent family members as well as seasonal visitors.
Ansche Chesed/Angel Orensanz Center – The Oldest Surviving NYC Synagogue Building
In New York City, the city with the largest Jewish population in the world, the oldest surviving synagogue is on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. Built in 1849, the synagogue housed the Ansche Chesed Congregation, primarily composed of German Jews. This community began arriving in significant numbers in the mid 19th century and introduced Reform traditions into the prayer service. In 1986, the sculptor Angel Orensanz purchased the property and turned it into his private studio and events center, calling it the Angel Orensanz Center. Today, the building has no religious affiliation and is primarily used as a space rental venue. Famous celebrity weddings include that of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.
Shearith Israel – The Oldest Congregation
While their building is not the oldest, the oldest congregation in the United States is New York City’s Shearith Israel. Spanish and Portuguese Jews founded the congregation in 1654 after fleeing the Inquisition in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Over the centuries, Shearith Israel moved around. The congregation first held services in a synagogue on Mill Street and relocated to various locations before settling on West 70th Street in 1897.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue
The 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue is historically significant because it was the first synagogue built by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe from whom approximately 80% of American Jews today are descended.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built during a period of mass immigration from 1880 to 1924 when more than 25 million immigrants, including more than 2.5 million Jews, came to the United States. Close to 85% of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to New York City; and approximately three quarters of them settled initially on the Lower East Side.
Today, it is the only remaining marker of the old Jewish Lower East Side that is open to the public. Tens of thousands of people visit the Museum for tours, exhibitions and cultural events. A small group of worshipers continues to meet for Sabbath and holiday services maintaining the Orthodox traditions of the synagogue’s founding congregation.
Collectively these synagogues help us trace the early history of Jews in America from colonial times to the period of mass Jewish migration. In particular, because today most American Jews have roots in the Lower East Side, the Eldridge Street Synagogue has not only shaped Jewish American culture, but also American culture.
By Julia Echikson, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern