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Thread: Eldridge Street Synagogue

  1. #1

    Default Eldridge Street Synagogue

    March 20, 2006
    Restoration of Synagogue Saves a Sense of History

    Workers Sunday placed a Star of David as part of the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

    Max Smith sat on a folding chair yesterday, gazing at the intricate terra-cotta carvings that adorn the facade of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, a sight that stirred memories of an era gone by.

    When Mr. Smith, 91, was a young boy, policemen roamed the neighborhood on horseback during the High Holy Days, ushering hundreds of families into the packed sanctuary, recognized as the nation's first synagogue built by Eastern European Jews.

    "There was not a seat vacant inside," recalled Mr. Smith, who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the 19th-century synagogue on Sept. 10, 1927, around the time he and his family moved to the Bronx. "And if there were people who couldn't get in, they prayed on the front steps or right here on the street."

    But over the years, as tens of thousands of Jewish families traded the Lower East Side for more prosperous areas, the once bustling Orthodox congregation found itself reduced to a few dozen worshipers, who could not keep up with repairs.

    Soon, cracks on the floor of the women's gallery turned into gaping holes. The sheet metal that lined the roof crumbled. Rain washed away the murals on the walls and warped the wooden benches. Outside, the blond brick, stone and terra cotta, with its little Stars of David, were blackened by soot. The finials that adorned the roof slowly fell apart.

    Much-needed renovations did not start until the 1990's, after a group of enthusiasts raised grant money to stop the deterioration.

    It was only yesterday, though, that Mr. Smith and 100 others — residents, worshipers and dignitaries — gathered to mark the project's most important milestone so far: the restoration of the synagogue's facade to its original Moorish, Gothic and Romanesque styles.

    "Not only do we return this buildings to the silhouette envisioned by the building's forefathers, but we return this building as a gift to the community that surrounds it," said Roberta Brandes Gratz, founder of the nonsectarian Eldridge Street Project, which oversees the synagogue's $20 million restoration and cultural programs, including guided tours for the 20,000 people who visit the synagogue every year.

    The Eldridge Street Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1887 as a symbol of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States. It sits in the shadows of the Manhattan Bridge, a block south of Canal Street, where Jewish bakeries, markets and clothing stores have been replaced by Chinese restaurants and fish markets.

    The synagogue was on the verge of collapse in 1986 when Ms. Gratz and her group stepped in to help rescue it. Many other synagogues citywide, but particularly on the Lower East Side, did not meet the same fate: faced with shrinking congregations and aging structures, they ended up in the hands of real estate developers or found new use as mosques, churches and in once case a Buddhist temple. And this year, another old synagogue, the First Roumanian-American Congregation on Rivington Street, was demolished after its roof collapsed.

    On Eldridge Street, the goal at first was simply to shore up the decaying structure. The restoration itself followed, though in very small steps. The first-floor sanctuary was replastered and painted, six stained-glass windows were restored and installed, the ornamental gates outside received a fresh coat of antirust solution. A year ago, scaffolding went up in the upper balcony to allow workers to clean hard-to-reach spaces in the domes and remove peeling paint.

    Before work began, workers cataloged the synagogue's artistic details. Ultimately, that is what allowed Walter Sedovic and Jill H. Gotthelf, the architects in charge of the restoration, to order a replica of the central ornamental finial, which rose to its perch at the center of the roof by boom lift as the crowd who joined yesterday's celebration applauded.

    "This is a very special moment," said Tova G. Bookson, whose husband, Paul P. E. Bookson, a retired judge, was a past president of the synagogue and a supporter of its restoration until his death last September. Mrs. Bookson, her children and grandchildren still worship there.

    "We're not just witnessing a temple come back to life," she said. "We're witnessing as history is preserved for many generations to come."

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    December 1, 2007

    Museum Review

    Return of a Long-Dormant Island of Grace



    Stand at the center of the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, whose main sanctuary reopens tomorrow after a restoration that took 20 years and cost $20 million, and gaze upward, past the chandeliers with their curled vintage glass, toward the 70-foot-high vaulted ceiling, painted with gilded stars.

    Even now — as this space’s religious function has faded and been folded into the newly named Museum at Eldridge Street, and as Irving Howe’s “world of our fathers” on the Lower East Side in New York becomes more like the “world of our great-grandfathers” — it is possible to be awestruck by the exotic splendor of this meticulously restored sanctuary. It is elaborately ornamented with mock-Turkish motifs, Moorish arches and fantastical trompe l’oeil painting that turns plaster into marble, pine into mahogany and molded decoration into ornate stone. Imagine, then, the impact it must have had on its worshipers when this synagogue flourished, amid its neighborhood’s raucous, grinding poverty and slum tenements, and its residents’ intoxicating American ambitions and devout Old World beliefs.

    At the close of the 19th century, it must have seemed otherworldly. The Lower East Side had become the way station for the United States’ most recent immigrations of Italians and Eastern European Jews. Between 1880 and 1890 alone — as the synagogue was constructed, dedicated and began its intense, all-too-brief life — 60,000 immigrant Jews settled there.

    By 1910, according to the historian Hasia R. Diner, the neighborhood contained half a million Jews; by contrast, Vienna, one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe, had a Jewish population of 175,000, and Chicago, about 100,000. This neighborhood had one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world — and surely one of the poorest. Most of the area’s 60-some synagogues were humble gathering places named after the Eastern European towns and shtetls from which their worshipers had fled, resembling the social clubs that develop among many immigrant communities.

    Go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum a few blocks away on Orchard Street if you want to see how most of those worshipers really lived, crowding generations and occupations into three small, ill-lit rooms without plumbing, and then walk into this ethereal vault, with its expanse of space and skylights and stained glass. Who among those tenement dwellers would not have been amazed?

    Now the synagogue seems otherworldly in a different way, framed by the shops and bustling sidewalks of a newer immigrant community. Just as the nearby Garden Cafeteria, once frequented by Isaac Bashevis Singer, became a Chinese restaurant, and as the building of the great Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward came at one time to house a Chinese church, no doubt something similar would have happened to this synagogue.

    Indeed, by the mid-1950s, without funds or a substantial congregation, the main sanctuary was sealed shut; only a remnant of the original congregation continued to use the smaller ground-floor study hall. Then, in 1971, the water-damaged main sanctuary was surveyed with astonishment by Gerald R. Wolfe, a New York University professor, who founded the Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Fifteen years later, the preservationist and journalist Roberta Brandes Gratz was so taken by its latent promise that she started the Eldridge Street Project, helped obtain its landmark status and began a fund-raising drive that gradually brought the sanctuary back to life.

    But what purpose could such a place serve if its religious function and community were gone? Rather than leave it a monument to an earlier faith, the Eldridge Street Project turned the building into a symbol of a contemporary, secular faith. In the 1990s, the synagogue, its renovation unfinished, became a museum, a center, in the words of the Project, “for historical reflection, aesthetic inspiration and spiritual renewal.”

    The Project welcomed 15,000 to 20,000 visitors yearly, offering a glimpse of 19th-century Jewish religious life along with insights into the broader immigrant experience. Lectures and events, some involving the local Chinese community, anchored the building in its altered neighborhood.

    Now, with the stunning restoration, overseen by the architects Walter Sedovic and Jill H. Gotthelf, almost four times the number of annual visitors are expected at the renamed building. This spring, public programs will include an introduction to oral history in a Family History Center, which will offer genealogical information; a concert featuring immigrant music of the vaudeville era; and lectures on Jewish fiction and Yiddish movies.

    Next summer, under the guidance of the education director, Annie Polland, a five-day teacher workshop on “Immigration, Religion and Culture of New York’s Lower East Side” will take place, financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    The newly reconstructed study hall — which includes the wooden ark that served the congregation before 1887 — will still function as a sanctuary on Friday nights and Saturdays. At other times, it will be where guided tours begin. In an adjacent space, monitors and projected images of two high-tech “history tables” will respond to touch, showing neighborhood highlights, explaining the synagogue’s structure and exploring the once-thriving Yiddish newspapers.

    But it is in the sanctuary that the museum’s themes will come into full play, particularly if the guides are as knowledgeable as Ms. Polland, who is completing a book on the synagogue for Yale University Press. This Orthodox Jewish synagogue, she points out, for all its adherence to traditional religious law (women sat in balconies as men ran the service), was shaping a new form of American Judaism.

    The synagogue was built with the support of successful Eastern European immigrants who could afford major contributions to its initial $92,000 cost. In its ambitious opening years, Ms. Polland points out, the synagogue even paid for the distinguished Russian cantor Pinhas Minkowsky to move to New York and lead the congregation. But lay leadership, rather than rabbinical leadership, was central, and it overlapped with the boards of other groups helping new immigrants.

    The synagogue’s architects were two little-known German brothers named Herter, who also built tenements and lofts in the neighborhood. But the leadership approved a design for this Eastern European synagogue that deliberately echoed the Moorish style of uptown Reform synagogues built by German Jews, staking a claim as their legitimate rivals.

    With its painted stars and radiant skylights, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was surely meant to evoke spiritual yearning, but it was also forming something more distinctly American, promising worshipers a comforting home under their adopted heavens. The synagogue was even decorated in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration, in 1889. In 1892, one journalist, noting the congregation’s mix of occupations and origins, wrote, “E pluribus Unum receives a new meaning here.”

    This was all done without slighting Old World Orthodoxy. The influence of American life is evident only in subtle ways, like the use of Yiddish characters to sound out English words on the wall’s stone plaques. But there was also an openness to possibility. Events included a lecture by someone who must have seemed heretical: the former Reform rabbi Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Society.

    This synagogue reflected, then, not the socialist “world of our fathers” that Howe was preoccupied with, nor the impulses toward assimilation and renunciation that became a hallmark of later Jewish generations, but an attempt to shape a rigorous religious life that would help usher immigrants into their new realm. If the sanctuary had been made of marble, mahogany and slabs of stone, it would have seemed as if the task were done, as if prosperity and solidity could be taken for granted. That is one reason why it is so moving to see the grandeur evoked using the most modest resources and the craft of dexterously applied paint.

    That is also why it is so stirring to see the deliberate traces the renovators left of the congregation’s less glorious history — the broken plaster of an old wall interrupting the restored “stonework,” a large window of glass bricks that was put in when the congregation could no longer afford to repair the stained glass — remnants of rough passage alongside an inspired and reconstituted life.

    The Museum at Eldridge Street opens tomorrow at 12 Eldridge Street, between Canal and Division Streets, Lower East Side; (212) 219-0903.

    Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

  3. #3
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002


    Stars Are Born

    Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans complete Eldridge Street window

    by Alan G. Brake

    Kiki Smith and Deborah Smith have designed a new rose window for
    the Eldridge Street Synagogue, seen here in a rendering.

    The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s journey from a near ruin to a beautiful cultural center was long and deliberate. After more than 20 years of work, the restoration of the elaborate sanctuary was completed in 2007, except for one important element: the rose window. After reviewing proposals by 11 teams of artists, the synagogue’s board of directors and staff selected a contemporary design by the artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. It is expected to be complete this summer.

    A mock-up of the new window.
    Courtesy Smith/Gans/Wiss, Janney, Elsther

    Outside the recently restored synagogue. The new window is at the opposite end.

    There were no historical photographs of the original window, so it was impossible to recreate it accurately. “There was a great debate about what we should do about the window,” said Bonnie Dimun, executive director of the Museum at Eldridge Street. “Kiki and Deborah’s design resonated deeply with the board. We wanted a design that looked forward but also referenced the past.”

    The design picks up existing motifs painted on the sanctuary’s walls. “The stars were what unified the place, which is very layered, very encrusted with ornament,” Gans said. “We thought the window was a beautiful opportunity to extend the wall into the light.”

    “The building has always been a striking presence in the neighborhood,” added Amy Stein Milford, deputy director at the museum. “The builders drew on whatever was around, including both American symbols like five-pointed stars and Jewish symbols like the Star of David.”

    Small, five-pointed stars swirl toward the window’s center, which features a large Star of David. The window will be fabricated from silicone-laminated glass, so light will come through gaps in the colored glass, unlike traditional leaded windows. Six curved ribs will provide structural support for the window and the cast-glass central star, which will extend out from the window, giving it texture and depth.

    The round opening is currently filled with a window made from glass blocks, arranged in the shape of three tablets. The blocks will be saved and recycled as a donor and memorial wall on the ground floor.

    This is not the first time that Gans and Smith have worked together: They’ve been designing an addition to Smith’s house for several years. “You either get along really well with the person or you don’t at all,” Gans said. “We get along well enough that she asked me to collaborate with her.”

  4. #4

    Thumbs up

    This restoration is such an inspiration. Simply wonderful.

  5. #5
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002


    Restoration complete after window is installed

    BY Aline Reynolds

    The long-awaited restoration of the Museum and Synagogue at Eldridge Street is finally complete. A large stained-glass window, installed earlier this month on its eastern wall, marked the end of a 24-year-long overhaul of the building.

    The circular window features the Star of David and has a striking pattern of golden stars against a shimmering blue backdrop.

    “This is indeed the crown of our jewel, the glorious capstone of 25 years of effort,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, the museum’s founder. “In multiple ways, this restoration has become a model of how to save our sacred heritage, how to advance preservation, first building block of sustainable development.”

    She and others on the museum’s Board of Trustees celebrated the milestone at a gala held last Thursday evening at the synagogue. Among the speakers were Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, and the window’s designers, artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

    “The synagogue has been a center of life for so many generations who settled on the Lower East Side… and this is a spectacular contemporary window,” Bloomberg said, who helped secure $6 million for the renovation.

    Bloomberg alluded to religious tolerance in light of the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, a project that he vehemently supports.

    “I just wanted to say if there’s any group that should be supportive of people’s right to pray… it’s the Jews who are here in this country who have a history of being persecuted,” he said.

    The synagogue, he added, has done an “exceptional” job at reinforcing tolerance among its members. “This building really reminds us how far we’ve come over the last 123 years,” he said.

    The mayor traces his own roots back to the Lower East Side: his maternal grandmother was born on Mott Street, about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue.

    Gopnik, the gala’s keynote speaker, talked about the history of the synagogue, which dates back to 1887, and the many obstacles Jews have faced worldwide to freely practice their religion.

    “A bunch of Lower East Side merchants decided to come together and build a great big building in honor of their faith,” which still stands today, he said. “The synagogue symbolizes that kind of resilience.”

    In reference to the stained-glass window, Gopnik said, “A window is in its very nature a thing of enormous fragility. But it’s deeply rooted in tradition… and in the deepest sense a suggestion of faith.”

    The museum’s executive director, Bonnie Dimun, praised Smith and Gans for their creation, and said she was taken aback when she first laid eyes on the window. “The 1200 pieces of glass started to move – as I sat there, and the hours went by, I was mesmerized at how a piece of glass could be alive,” she said.

    Smith explained how the window represents cutting-edge lamination techniques. “It’s the first time a studio in America has produced such a large piece of glass with this new technology, so it actually brings new technology to this country,” she told the crowd.

    “It’s been such a joy to spend so much time in this room… and we hope our window is a reflection of it,” said the emotional Gans.

    Smith and Gans were then honored with glass plaques, unused fragments of their stained-glass window.

    The presence of the new window in a historic, 19th-century building is a marriage of the old and the new.

    “I think it’s a wonderful symbol of what’s already going on here – the fact that this is a beautiful, historic site, but it’s a site with new life and new meaning for people of all backgrounds,” said Amy Stein Milford, the museum’s deputy director.

    Many in the crowd gazed at the stained glass during the talks.

    “It’s eye-catching, and it fills the space nicely,” said 20-year-old Lee Kreindel, who prays at the synagogue and volunteers at special events there.

    “I’m very excited by it,” said Board of Trustees member Mark Mirsky, who said he grew tired of staring at the four rectangular glass tablets that were previously embedded in the Eastern wall.

    The building’s original rose stained during Sabbath glass window shattered during a 1938 hurricane, according to the lore. The clear glass tablets, which served as substitutes for the window since the 1940s, now sit in the synagogue’s Family History Center, on the ground floor of the building, which has exhibits of first-generation Americans’ journeys to America.

    The new stained-glass window is the masterly finishing touch to substantial interior fixes of the space, which sources say were imperative. More than 18,000 public and private benefactors nationwide contributed to the project, which cost around $18.5 million.

    “It was in awful shape before,” said Mirsky, who has attended Sabbath at the synagogue since 1982. “When I came in here, there were pigeons flying through the roof… and the dust was a least an inch thick.” Mirsky also recalls one of the windows falling out of its framing in the mid-1990s.

    “It was a wreck – we couldn’t pray in those conditions,” said his son, Tsvi Sitzer, a freshman at the New York Institute of Technology.

    Synagogue staff members realized this, but had to decide how to go about updating the space while preserving its original architecture.

    “It was the classic preservation dilemma,” Stein said. “The motto was not to go back to its original grandeur, that it had to be just what it was in 1887, but rather [to] let the building tell its story.”

    Starting in the mid-1980s, repairs were made to the building’s roof and walls, and new heating and lighting systems were put in place. The restoration was done in several phases as outside funding trickled in, Milford said.

    “I’m looking forward to finally praying upstairs,” in the main synagogue room, Tsvi Sitzer said. Previously, he and his friends would pray in small rooms on the ground floor of the building.

    Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of only 15 on the Lower East Side that has active Sabbath services, according to Board of Trustees member David Sitzer.

    “Many people said to me, ‘why are they raising funds for a synagogue basically outside the Jewish community?’ he said. “Because it’s such a beautiful building, and it would be a shame to let it go.”

  6. #6
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Jun 2005
    NYC - Downtown


    More on the Stained Glass Window at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

    Designed by Kiki Smith & Deborah Gans

    Conversation with Kiki Smith & Deborah Gans
    Wednesday, November 17 at 6:30pm

    This October, the Museum at Eldridge Street will introduce a monumental new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. This permanent artwork is the culminating piece of our 24-year, award-winning restoration of the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, a New York City and National Historic Landmark. The introduction of this installation in our historic sacred site marries the new and the old, and places the museum at the crossroads of art, architecture, history and preservation.

    Digital rendering of Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans’s window design
    for the Eldridge Street Synagogue

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