Docent Spotlight – Herb Kass
For 125 years, the Eldridge Street Synagogue has been collecting stories: memories of life in a faraway country, the struggle of moving to America, the heyday of the Jewish Lower East Side and even life in the neighborhood today. These stories are what give meaning to the building, stories that are literally told by the walls, the windows and worn grooves in the floors. Today it is the docents who translate the synagogue’s history into spoken word and truly give the Eldridge Street Synagogue a voice. It is one of these docents who we are putting in the spotlight today: Herb Kass.
Herb celebrates his one-year anniversary as a docent this month. He became a tour-guide at the museum with the hope of reconnecting with his Jewish roots. I had the pleasure of speaking with Herb about his year as a docent, and during our conversation he explained that one of his favorite things about the museum is having the opportunity to meet visitors from all over the United States and the world. Herb has been able to connect with fascinating individuals, one of his fondest memories involving a family that had come from Turkey.
The family, Herb explained, brought to the museum their own family’s immigration story. Their ancestors emigrated from Spain 500 years earlier, and today the family still speaks Ladino, the traditional language of Sephardic Jews. The family was celebrating their son’s bar mitzvah, and despite a limited knowledge of English, they were still able to connect over the beauty of the space and shared traditions. Herb’s own paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Grodno (modern day Belarus) in the late 1800’s during the largest wave of Eastern European Jews to pass through Ellis Island. They, like many of the founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, lived on the Lower East Side before they moved out to Williamsburg, and eventually East New York and Queens where Herb grew up.
Like the story of the Turkish family, each tour Herb gives is an opportunity for individuals to come together in a space in which people have found meaning for over a century. The Museum at Eldridge Street does more that provide Jewish history, it encourages visitors to explore and share the experiences of their own families. As I was writing this entry, it hit me. I truly became aware of the space’s role as a catalyst in forging connections, even between complete strangers. This is truly the magic of the Museum at Eldridge Street.