The Lost Syn­a­gogues of Manhattan

Ellen Levitt
  • Review
August 11, 2014

When I was a teenag­er in the Bronx of the late 1950s and ear­ly 1960s, I was always struck by the fact that on 169th Street, start­ing at the south­west cor­ner of the Grand Con­course, stood three syn­a­gogues right next to one anoth­er: the pala­tial and Con­ser­v­a­tive Tem­ple Adath Israel; our shtibl-like Tifer­eth Beis Jacob, which was an Ortho­dox, refugee-heavy shul where the lin­gua fran­ca was Yid­dish; and the grander Sephardic Jew­ish Cen­ter. There was even a fourth syna­gogue across the street. 

So there were three syn­a­gogues of which we could say, echo­ing the old joke, that’s where we wouldn’t go.” 

The syn­a­gogues were tes­ti­mo­ny to a time when that part of the Bronx was a dense­ly work­ing-class and bour­geois Jew­ish neighbor­hood, and a hol­i­day like Rosh Hashanah would fill the parks with the easy chat­ter of Jews tak­ing the day off from work. All four of those syn­a­gogues are gone, con­vert­ed into church­es and oth­er pur­pos­es, as Jews left the south­ern Bronx for sub­ur­ban pas­tures, Man­hat­tan, Flori­da or Co-Op City, and the neigh­bor­hood filled with black and His­pan­ic new­com­ers who need­ed places to wor­ship that sat­is­fied their own reli­gious stirrings. 

The sto­ry of that trans­for­ma­tion is woven in lov­ing detail through­out The Lost Syn­a­gogues of the Bronx and Queens and its com­pan­ion vol­umes, one pub­lished recent­ly for Man­hat­tan and Stat­en Island, the oth­er pub­lished ear­li­er for Brook­lyn. All three are avail­able now as a tril­o­gy. The writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er is Ellen Levitt, a life­long New York­er with a pal­pa­ble affec­tion for the for­got­ten parts of the city who used many of the pho­tographs for an exhib­it at the Brook­lyn His­tor­i­cal Society. 

For Jews who lived in the bygone Bronx, or the altered Jew­ish neigh­bor­hoods of the oth­er bor­oughs, the book offers a nos­tal­gic and sur­pris­ing­ly infor­ma­tive guide­book filled with sharp and some­times plain­tive archi­tec­tur­al, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­i­cal insights. 

I learned, for exam­ple, that Eydie Gorme’s fam­i­ly were mem­bers of the Sephardic syn­a­gogue next to the one where I was bar mitz­va­hed and that the syn­a­gogue, now the Walk­er Memo­r­i­al Bap­tist Church, still dis­plays the Deca­logue and Jew­ish-themed stained glass win­dows like pen­ti­men­ti of a for­mer incar­na­tion. Tifer­eth Beth Jacob, my syn­a­gogue, found­ed in 1926, is now Igle­sia de Dios Pen­te­costal, though the sev­en-branched meno­rahs on each side of the build­ing are still vis­i­ble. And she right­ly calls the colon­nad­ed, mar­ble-front­ed Tem­ple Adath Israel, now a Sev­enth Day Adven­tist Tem­ple, a mag­nif­i­cent spec­i­men of reli­gious archi­tec­ture.” Sad as I was to read of how it had changed, it was heart­en­ing to know that the main sanc­tu­ary has been beau­ti­ful­ly maintained. 

I respond­ed per­son­al­ly to the book by focus­ing on the Bronx syn­a­gogues, and I’m bet­ting many read­ers may do the same by focus­ing on lost shuls from their neigh­bor­hoods. But read­ers can leaf through all three and find them­selves absorbed in Levitt’s inter­views with Jews who prayed there in the past — as well as gen­tile con­gre­gants who wor­ship there today — and her details are sel­dom less than beguiling. 

What is espe­cial­ly won­der­ful about these well-researched Baedek­ers is that they do not for­get the big­ger pic­ture. Levitt opens the books with intro­duc­to­ry chap­ters that eco­nom­i­cal­ly trace the his­to­ry of Jews in the par­tic­u­lar bor­ough. They moved to obtain big­ger and bet­ter homes, to get away from decay­ing con­di­tions, or due to the change in atmos­phere,’” she writes of the Bronx Jews. She tells the sto­ry of Mol­ly Gold­berg, the fic­tion­al radio and tele­vi­sion char­ac­ter cre­at­ed by Gertrude Berg, who lived with her fam­i­ly on East Tremont Avenue, and of the so-called mir­a­cle on Inter­vale Avenue,” where poor elder­ly Jews, many with­out strong fam­i­ly ties, remained in the east Bronx years after the wave of arson and mug­gings and kept a dilap­i­dat­ed shul going into the 1990s. 

For Man­hat­tan, she tells the sto­ry of Shaaray Zedek of Harlem and how it mor­phed from a grand syn­a­gogue that could seat 1,000 into one that by 1917 had six­ty-five mem­bers and two decades lat­er belonged to a black con­gre­ga­tion. The build­ing, with its remark­able rose win­dows, is now called New Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ, but the con­gre­ga­tion, which now spells its name Shaare Zedek, sur­vives at 93rd Street on the Upper West Side. 

She also includes a help­ful chap­ter explain­ing how syn­a­gogues acquired their names and why words like Tifer­eth (prais­ing), Adath (assem­bly), and Chevre (friends of) appear in so many. While the writ­ing can be work­man­like at times, the infor­ma­tion she has plumbed is often charm­ing. And one is impressed that Ms. Levitt took the time and had the ener­gy to vis­it over six­ty for­mer syn­a­gogues just in the Bronx and scores more in the oth­er boroughs. 

Not all syn­a­gogues became church­es. Some are com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, med­ical clin­ics, or schools. At least one became a muse­um. Sad­ly, many build­ings are gone for­ev­er, torched by arson or knocked down by devel­op­ers, and one feels Levitt’s frus­tra­tion at not being able to vis­it them. Their con­gre­gants were too scat­tered to res­cue a build­ing that had pro­vid­ed such an anchor for their lives.

Relat­ed content:

  • When I Went to Syn­a­gogue by Anna Solomon
  • Syn­a­gogues and Set­tle­ments by Rab­bi Elie Kaunfer
  • Is the Syn­a­gogue a Rel­ic of the Past? by Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yanklowitz

  • Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review

    Discussion Questions