Beyond the Façade: A Syn­a­gogue, A Restora­tion, A Legacy

Lar­ry Bort­niker, Rober­ta Bran­des Gratz, and Bon­nie Dimun
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

Why save an old dilap­i­dat­ed syn­a­gogue? Beyond the Façade: A Syn­a­gogue, A Restora­tion, A Lega­cy answers that ques­tion. A beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed chron­i­cle of sav­ing the Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue (Kahal Adath Jeshu­run), the book is a joint effort, as was the restora­tion. Lar­ry Bort­niker is the writer of much of the nar­ra­tive describ­ing the restora­tion. Rober­ta Bran­des Gratz, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Eldridge Street Project, wrote the Fore­word, and Bon­nie Dimun, the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Muse­um of the Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue wrote the Afterword. 

The Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue was the first Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue built from the ground up on the Low­er East Side. It opened its doors at 12 Eldridge Street on Sep­tem­ber 4, 1887. The build­ing itself was designed by two Ger­man immi­grant archi­tect broth­ers, Peter and Fran­cis Hert­er. These two Catholic young men won the com­mis­sion based on their elab­o­rate ten­e­ment façade designs done uptown in Yorkville and else­where on the Low­er East Side. The beau­ty of the Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue launched them onto a career of design­ing over six­ty build­ings. The Eldridge build­ing was the only syn­a­gogue they designed. 

The syn­a­gogue was the pre­em­i­nent main­stay of Ortho­dox Jew­ish life in the area” for over forty years, reports Borniker. The sanc­tu­ary seat­ed sev­en hun­dred and fifty peo­ple. Over a mil­lion Jews set­tled on the Low­er East Side from 1880 to 1924. Immi­gra­tion to the Low­er East Side dra­mat­i­cal­ly dropped with the pas­sage of the 1924 immi­gra­tion law, which stopped almost all of the immi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe. After that, the size of the con­gre­ga­tion rapid­ly dwin­dled, as did its finances. The Great Depres­sion pro­vid­ed still anoth­er blow to the syn­a­gogue. Nonethe­less, loy­al Eldridge con­gre­gants con­tin­ued to wor­ship at the syn­a­gogue. When the main sanc­tu­ary became too dilap­i­dat­ed in the 1950’s, they moved their wor­ship ser­vices to the mod­est beit medrash (study hall). 

There was a for­tu­itous turn­around in 1971. Ger­ald Wolfe, a New York Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor and archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an, per­suad­ed the sex­ton of the shul to let him view the main sanc­tu­ary. Despite its state of dis­re­pair, Wolfe was impressed with the extra­or­di­nary beau­ty of the sanc­tu­ary, with its hand carved pews and prayer stand, beau­ti­ful stained glass win­dows, carved pil­lars, and oth­er dis­tinc­tive fea­tures. Wolfe led walk­ing tours of the build­ing and enlist­ed a group of oth­er peo­ple com­mit­ted to restor­ing the build­ing to its orig­i­nal archi­tec­tur­al glory. 

The sto­ry of the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s restora­tion is an epic saga of activists who were com­mit­ted to sav­ing a hand­some but decrepit build­ing, and pre­serv­ing an impor­tant part of Jew­ish and Low­er East Side his­to­ry. It is an inspi­ra­tional and visu­al­ly exquis­ite record.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions