Today is a huge anniversary for the Museum and our landmark synagogue – on September 4th, 1887 the Eldridge Street Synagogue officially opened to the public. Remarkably, construction in the incredibly ornate building had begun only ten months earlier. And on September 4th, 1887, the Lower East Side gained its first purpose-built, large-scale synagogue.
It would have been like nothing else in the neighborhood. The building was much more architecturally ornate than its neighbors, and much taller. There were a couple other large congregations in the neighborhood at the time, but they were praying in converted churches or other buildings never designed to be Jewish sacred spaces. So the establishment of a synagogue built to the congregation’s specifications was a major triumph.
And the neighborhood showed up to celebrate. 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, and the Torah being “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. Their behavior and old-world traditions were seen as undesirable by the New York establishment. 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. (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.
And those positive evaluations were the congregation’s goal. The entire synagogue – the grand architecture, the congregation’s 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 they wanted 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 story 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 from our gift shop and read more about the fascinating early days of this congregation.
Chelsea Dowell is the Director of Public Engagement at the Museum at Eldridge Street.