Beth Hamedrash Hagadol – Reflections Following the Fire
The report of a three-alarm fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue is shocking and saddening. Chilling photographs, including this one here from the Lodownny.com, show the building’s burned interior. Its former Gothic-Revival interior is unrecognizable in the charred remains. Though the synagogue was padlocked shut and in a state of severe deterioration for several years, the news still feels like a punch in the gut.
Thankfully no one was hurt in the blaze.
Many people posted photographs and videos of the flames billowing out from the building. The Museum’s Visitor Services Director was eating nearby when the fire broke out and texted to let us know what was happening.
Early History of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol
The early history of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is entwined with the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s. Its loss hits close to home.
Both synagogues trace their origins to Beth Hamedrash (House of Study), the first Russian Jewish congregation in the United States. Formed in 1852, Beth Hamedrash served the Yiddish speaking Jewish community that had started to trickle into the United States. In just a few decades that trickle would become a flood with more than 2.5 million immigrants arriving between 1880 and 1924.
Early in Beth Hamedrash’s history there was a dispute between the lay leadership and the rabbi. The congregation split in two. The group siding with the rabbi renamed themselves Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, or The Great House of Study. The group siding with the lay leadership became Kahal Adath Jeshurun (Community of the People of the Righteous Way). Twenty five years later Kahal Adath Jeshurun would purchase three lots on Eldridge Street and become known as the Eldridge Street Synagogue. As the joke goes, one Jew, two synagogues.
Leading rabbis served at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Jacob Joseph became spiritual leader in 1888, and served as the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York City. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, the leader in the Kovno Ghetto, became the synagogue’s rabbi in 1952. According to his New York Times obituary, during the Holocaust, Rabbi Oshry became “custodian of the warehouse where Jewish books were stored for planned exhibit of ‘artifacts of the extinct Jewish race.’ Rabbi Oshry used them to make interpretations of religious law…to help people continue to live as Jews in seemingly impossible circumstances.”
More recently, a real estate dispute over how to use the building embroiled the synagogue. The rabbi saw benefit in selling the building while members of the dwindling congregation, community members and preservationists fought hard to save this historic and spiritual landmark. No doubt, many questions will be asked in the coming days.
Fewer and Fewer Jewish Landmarks
Just hours before the fire broke out, I had been leading a Mother’s Day walking tour in the neighborhood. We visited sites that were central to the Jewish immigrant experience in America. These included a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), the early home of the Forward Newspaper Building and the Henry Street Settlement founded by Lillian Wald in 1893.
Along with these Jewish sites, we passed Young’s Fish Balls across the street from the Eldridge Street Synagogue and new hip restaurants, boutiques and galleries. On the corner of Hester and Orchard Streets we looked at hundred-year-old postcard images of the historic market streets. Pushcart peddlers sold fruit and pickles, clothing and dishes – just about anything but pork. A few buildings pictured in the early 20th century postcards remained including PS 42. This public school once served the Jewish community of the neighborhood. Today its students are predominately Chinese.
We passed many new places as well. Stanley’s Pharmacy sells all-natural hangover cures and kombucha tea from its wellness bar. The Meow Parlour, a cat café which rents time to pet and play with cats, was another popular destination. On Essex Street huge red building cranes indicate the neighborhood’s newest addition – Essex Street Crossing, a mammoth real estate development project that will bring 1.9 million square feet of new residential, commercial and community spaces to the area.
Every year there are fewer and fewer Jewish landmarks. Following last night’s fire we have lost another.
A Neighborhood Defined by Change
The one constant in the neighborhood is change. Before the Jewish immigrants settled in the area there were German and Irish immigrants. Before the waves of immigrants came to the U.S., the area was farmland as attested to by some of the street names. Orchard Street recalls a time when James Delancey’s orchards filled the street; Division Street marked the dividing line between the Revolutionary-era properties of Delancey and Henry Rutgers.
We don’t’ wax nostalgic here at the Museum at Eldridge Street. We tell the story of the Jewish immigrant community of the neighborhood. But we also embrace the changes in our area. In just another month on Sunday, June 18 we will celebrate the new immigrant life of the area with our Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival. This annual festival is a beloved community event celebrating the Jewish, Chinese and Puerto Rican communities of our neighborhood.
Every day students from local school and throughout the city come to learn about immigrant and Jewish history. The Museum’s commission of a new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans in our 1887 sanctuary is a quietly radical act. This beautiful stained glass artwork is a tangible symbol. It signals that the story of our building within the context of its neighborhood has many chapters and is ever-evolving.
I am grateful to be part of an effort that helps ensure that the Eldridge Street Synagogue – the first great house of worship built by Jewish immigrants in America – is still standing. But looking at footage of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, I am aware that the story of Eldridge Street could have ended another way.
By Amy Stein-Milford, Museum at Eldridge Street Deputy Director