The architecture of the synagogue is unique, the renovations are impressive and the history is compelling.
But what wows the visitors are the crumbling plaster wall and the bare wooden planks.
Extensive repairs on the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street Synagogue complete, the building — designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and honored last month by the New York Landmarks Conservancy as a recipient of an annual Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award — is drawing larger crowds for its tours. Jews and gentiles, Americans and foreigners, senior citizens and schoolchildren, they are drawn by history, says Henry Zimring, inset, who has served as a volunteer docent since December. “People are interested in their past,” says the retiree, and many people with immigrant roots trace their families to the Manhattan neighborhood.
“This is also a work of art,” he says of the site, which was constructed in 1886 as the first Orthodox synagogue in the city built by immigrants from Eastern Europe but which suffered a dwindling membership starting during the Depression in the 1930s. By the 1950s, damage caused by rain leaking in forced the synagogue to cordon off the sanctuary, which remained empty for 25 years.
Now restored, regular weekly services are held there.
When built, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was noted for its ornaments and decorative finishes, a brick and terra cotta façade that combined Moorish, Gothic and Romanesque features.
That’s what the visitors see.
What they remember is the portion of the wall, below, upstairs in the women’s section, which has been left unrenovated and unpainted, a reminder of how the shul looked before the $20 million restoration campaign began. “It brings gasps to the people,” says Zimring. “When they see the way the building is now” — the rest of the building, he means — “they can appreciate the work that was done.”
The building, now officially known as the Museum at Eldridge Street, is hands-on. The visitors touch the bare wall. “Then they touch the finished wall,” Zimring says.
A great-uncle of his once lived on the Lower East Side. But Zimring says the synagogue’s past draws him. “First of all, it’s history. I love history.”
He alters his tours for each group, depending on the visitors’ ages and backgrounds. And he can alter the language in which he leads his tours. He can do it in Yiddish, he says. “I know Yiddish. That was my first language.”