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THE THRIVING JEWISH LOWER EAST SIDE
The Museum at Eldridge Street’s landmark home – the Eldridge Street Synagogue – is an important piece of the historic Jewish Lower East Side.
The synagogue was built in 1887, during a period of mass immigration to the United States. From 1880 – 1924, more than 25 million immigrants, including more than 2.5 million Jews, came to the country at that time. Nearly 85 percent of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe immigrated to New York City; and approximately 75 percent of those settled on the Lower East Side. Very quickly, the Lower East Side become the most densely populated Jewish community on the planet.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the first synagogue in America purpose-built by immigrants from Eastern Europe. Previous synagogues for these immigrants were adapted from other structures – event halls, small storefronts, or even old churches. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was more than a place to pray; it was a spiritual home for immigrants from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries. Here in America, they proudly displayed their new found religious freedom. Stars of David were mounted on the synagogue’s rooftop towers and etched into its wooden front doors. The magnificent building provided an inspiring contrast to the crowded streets, tenements, factories and shops of the Lower East Side.
For fifty years, the synagogue flourished. The congregation hired world-renowned cantors and in 1918, hired Rabbi Aharon Yudelovitch to serve as their first full-time pulpit rabbi. He was the first in a series of famed Talmudists and speakers. Thousands of people took part in religious services during the building’s heyday.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s immigrant founders were diverse both economically and geographically. According to one 1892 account, “Lawyers, merchants, artisans, clerks, peddlers, and laborers, compose the dense but changeful throng. All are one in respect to race and faith, but many in regard to birthplace and speech. E Pluribus Unum finds new meaning here.”
A PERIOD OF DECLINE
The synagogue began to decline following the introduction of the 1924 Immigrant Quota Laws. That new policy, combined with increasing exodus to outer boroughs, caused a sharp and steady decline in the population of the Jewish Lower East Side. The congregation’s numbers dwindled as well and soon, the small but stalwart group could no longer afford to maintain the grand main sanctuary. In the 1940s, they relocated to the synagogue’s lower level chapel and closed off the massive space above them. Behind closed doors, the synagogue’s glorious main sanctuary slowly deteriorated. Still, the small congregation continued to worship in the building, never missing a Sabbath service.
In 1986, one hundred years after the synagogue first opened, the hidden sanctuary was rediscovered. Immediately, new generations rallied to save the building.
A PRESERVATION PROJECT
“It was as though the synagogue was held up by strings from heaven,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz. Pigeons roosted in the balconies, benches were covered with dust, and stained glass windows had warped with time. The building required emergency stabilization; if no work was done, it would collapse. Gratz, a historic preservationist, formed the non-sectarian Eldridge Street Project to preserve and eventually restore the deteriorating structure.
The Project, precursor to the Museum at Eldridge Street, conducted emergency repairs. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and gained recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the City of New York, and First Lady Michelle Obama – for its architectural beauty, its significance as part of the American immigrant experience, and its revitalization as a vital heritage center for people of all backgrounds.
The Eldridge Street Project pursued restoration of the priceless building for nearly 20 years. In December 2007, the restoration was finally complete and the building was rededicated as the Museum at Eldridge Street.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
In 2010, the Museum commissioned a monumental stained glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. The window is a symbol of the continuing life in the building. In 2014, the Museum completed a visitor center and permanent exhibition.
Today the Museum at Eldridge Street welcomes visitors from around the world. Tours, school programs, concerts, talks, festivals, and other cultural events reinforce the building’s original purpose as a sanctuary and community center. The Museum’s one-of-a-kind historic building is a time capsule, a portal, and a lens through which contemporary visitors can experience history.