A key challenge for a historic site is bringing to life the people who were once associated with the building. Here at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a diverse cast of characters prayed, socialized, debated and made their mark on the building and the larger Lower East Side Jewish community. One of the most intriguing characters, was Sender Jarmulowsky, who in Horatio Alger-like fashion rose from being a penniless orphan to becoming a Talmud prodigy to ending his life as a wealthy Lower East Side banker and “macher.” The Museum is grateful to docent Gil Gordon, who independently took on the project of researching Jarmulowsky, the first president of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
Yeshiva scholar, synagogue president, and banker, Sender Jarmulowsky is “living proof that in America one can be a rich businessman but also be a pious Jew,” wrote the Morgan Zhurnal, a Yiddish newspaper, on June 4, 1912.
Sender Jarmulowsky was born in 1841 in Grajewo, Russia, now a part of Poland. At age three, he was orphaned and raised by the Rabbi of Werblow. Considered a prodigy, Jarmulowsky was sent to the Volozhin Yeshiva, an elite Talmudic academy, and emerged with rabbinical ordination. Though penniless, he married Rebecca Markels, the daughter of a wealthy Polish merchant. This was common in Lithuania at the time. It was no doubt anticipated that he would become a brilliant scholar while his wife supported him in studies.
Jarmulowsky, however, had other plans. In 1868 he moved his family to Hamburg, Germany. Anticipating mass Jewish migration from Eastern Europe, he bought steamship tickets in Europe in bloc at a low price. He then sold them to German and East European Jews who hoped to head to America. The price he charged was less than that charged by the steamship companies. Those companies were not happy that Jarmulowsky was providing these immigrants with a reduced ticket price.
Five years later, at the age of thirty-two, Jarmulowsky and his growing family set sail for New York. There he opened a second office at 54 Canal Street, an immigrant “bank” that provided a place for loans, deposits as well as the continuing sale of ship’s ticket. He made his wife a full partner, an unusual practice at the time.
The bank was a huge success from the day it opened. Yiddish and Russian speaking tellers facilitated banking transactions for the newly arriving immigrants. The bank was open all day on Sunday, a day when every other bank was closed. This allowed Sabbath-observant Jews to take care of their financial needs on the weekend. Jarmulowsky also continued to sell ship tickets at the bank – an important service for immigrants who were often saving their money specifically to bring relatives over from Europe and whose relatives could then pick up the tickets in Europe. The bank was reputed to serve more than 60,000 depositors and survived bank runs in 1886, 1890, 1893, and 1901, always paying 100 cents on the dollar. Jewish immigrants would run to get their money out on Friday and return sheepishly to 54 Canal on Monday to redeposit their money in the bank.
Though a prosperous businessman, Jarmulowsky did not turn his back on religion. In 1887, he and other prominent businessmen in the community came together to create the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This was the first time that America’s Eastern European Jewish immigrants built a synagogue from the ground up. With his wealth, Yeshiva background, and sterling reputation for both honesty and piety, Jarmulowsky was a natural choice to serve as the synagogue’s first president. He would help nurture traditional Jewish values on American soil.
Soon after his term as President at the Eldridge Street Synagogue ended, Jarmulowsky and his family moved uptown to East 93rd Street. At the time he had at least six children: four boys, Albert, Meyer, Louis, and Henry; and two daughters, Amelie and Blume. He became a founding member of one of the first Orthodox Synagogues built uptown: Zichron Ephraim, now known as the Park East Synagogue. He was also a founder of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (1898), and gave generously of his time and money to Beth El Hospital (now Beth Israel), Lebanon Hospital (now Bronx Lebanon), and many other Jewish charities.
In 1912, Jarmulowsky opened a new bank building at the 54 Canal Street site. The New York Architectural Digest described the building as a “shrine to American capitalism,” and its distinguished Beaux Arts façade featured a rooftop Greek tempietto which also served to hide the building’s water tower. It competed with the nearby Forward Newspaper Building for the title of “Tallest Building on the Lower East Side.” Jarmulowsky died less than a month after the building opened.
In 1914, there was a run on the bank as investors sought funds to send to relatives back in Eastern Europe on the eve of a World War. Unfortunately, the bank was forced to close its doors.”
Today, the building that once housed Jarmulowsky’s bank is sheathed in scaffolding. A boutique hotel is scheduled to open in the not too distant future. Fortunately, though, the façade has been landmarked. The decorative banding that bears the name “S. Jarmulowsky” will remain.