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.