Women Take the Lead at Eldridge Street
We’re celebrating Museum Week! All around the world, Museums will focus on 7 themes over 7 days. Today’s theme is “women” so we’re looking back at this blog post, originally written in February 2017 by Taylor Baker, celebrating the women of the early congregation.
On this day, we remember the formation of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Formed February 16, 1919, the all-female committee arose during a time of flux within the synagogue itself, and the nation at-large.
At the end of 1918, Eldridge had installed its first permanent rabbi, Avrohom Aharon Yudelovitch. Prior to Yudelovitch assuming the role of permanent rabbi – a role which he occupied until his death in 1930 – the congregation mainly hosted visiting rabbis to teach and sermonize. These rabbis did not tend to serve as the leader of the congregation. Now, for the first time, the Synagogue had a permanent rabbi responsible for the organization, management, and development of the congregation and its building. Meanwhile, the suffrage movement in the United States was reaching a fever pitch. By 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment is passed, giving American women the right to vote.
With new leadership within the shul, members requested that a Ladies’ Auxiliary be created. This new group would formalize much of the charity work women of the congregation had already been doing and would allow them to organize around issues that were important to them. And with the changing nature of women’s role in civic society, the Ladies’ Auxiliary provided concrete leadership roles for women in the congregation, as they applied the important values of tzedakah (charity) to the care and maintenance of the congregation, and their surrounding communities.
The Ladies’ Auxiliary arranged weekly meals for the homeless, and often made tsholnt (a hearty stew of meat, potatoes, and vegetables) or chicken soup, to be served every Saturday night. These Saturday evening meals were joyous occasions, filled with the women’s singing. The Ladies’ Auxiliary was also instrumental in raising funds to maintain the synagogue. They kept in touch with congregants that had long left the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and implored them to visit to pray and donate money. This was especially crucial once the National Origins Act of
1924 was passed, which severely limited the number of Eastern European immigrants that were allowed into the country. The quotas prevented a replenishment of the congregation as people left the harsh conditions of the Lower East Side for a better life, causing congregation numbers (and available funds) to dwindle.
They also threw parties! A 1935 notice (likely published in the Yiddish Daily Forward) solicits new Auxiliary members. “Worthy Sisters!” it begins, “the Ladies’ Auxiliary must fulfill its obligation to support our shul and not lose its good name for the wonderful work it has done so far.” Towards that goal, the organization hosted a Purim party at the synagogue. The advertisement promises free refreshments, prepared by the ladies of the committee, plus music and a freihliche (happy) time for all. It’s a nice image, and proof that the Auxiliary was well regarded and had earned a reputation for great work, hospitality and leadership in the congregation.
In 1925, the hard work of the Ladies’ Auxiliary was honored with the installation of a new marble slab in the shul, inscribed with the names of its members. Today, as the Museum at Eldridge Street, in many ways we continue their legacy of care. Each day when we teach visitors about the rich culture and history of this building and of the Jewish Lower East Side, we have the original women of Eldridge to thank. And for their effort, their names preside over the sanctuary, proudly, in marble.
Taylor Baker is the Visitor Services Associate at the Museum at Eldridge Street.