Elissa Sampson and her husband, Jonathan Boyarin, longtime members of the Stanton Street Shul, held a blue paper napkin between them as they twirled to the music of the four-piece klezmer band hired by the synagogue for the afternoon.
While they danced, others milled around the rented-out the Lower East Side auditorium— about a five-minute walk from the synagogue — chatting with friends between bites of lox and whitefish salad, or handing out balloons to the more than a dozen toddlers who had come Sunday with their parents to what the congregation called its First Annual Luncheon and Klezmer Concert.
“It’s nice to see the kids at the shul growing up with friends in the community,” said Jonah Sampson Boyarin, the 18-year-old son of Elissa and Jonathan.
“When I was growing up, it was pretty much just me.”
The Stanton Street Shul, which nearly closed four years ago because of declining membership and the former rabbi’s covert attempt to sell the narrow tenement that has housed the synagogue since 1913, has much to celebrate.
The synagogue, formally known as Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan, is back from the brink, a living symbol of the theme of renewal and new beginnings that mark the High Holy Days.
For the first time in a generation, the Orthodox congregation boasts more than 100 members. They are an intergenerational mix of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, middle-aged empty-nesters and twenty- and thirty-something couples and families.
Among the congregants who attended the festivities Sunday were women who wore sheitls and those who wore pants. There were men with black hats, those with velvet or knitted kipot and more than a few without skullcaps.
“At other synagogues, you have to fit into a certain mold — we have no mold,” said Harriet Picker, 28, who grew up Conservative on the Lower East Side and joined the Stanton Street Shul in 2001 with her husband, Neal. The couple has a 15-month-old son, Ari.
“This is a real milestone,” Neal Picker added. “It’s been a long time since we had so much to celebrate.”
That’s because in 2000, Rabbi Joseph Singer with the help of his family contracted to sell the Stanton Street Shul building to the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped for $1.2 million.
“There’s nobody left,” Rabbi Singer, who had served as spiritual leader primarily on a volunteer basis since 1964, told The Jewish Week in 2001. “The board and myself together want to sell the shul.”
But he and his family members — who were on the board — apparently failed to tell many of the congregants. Though small in number, the congregants came together to block the sale.
The case ultimately went to the state Supreme Court before the parties reached a settlement in October 2002 stipulating that Rabbi Singer drop his efforts to sell the building. (Financial constraints preclude the congregation from employing a full-time rabbi these days, but Akiva Herzfeld, a rabbinical student and Wexner scholar, serves as the rabbinic intern.) City Councilman Alan Gerson, who represents the Lower East Side, said Sunday that the Stanton Street Shul’s renaissance is a metaphor for New York City’s resilience.
“The history of the Jewish people who came to New York is full of disasters overcome and challenges surmounted,” he said.
“The shul was dying and we brought it back to life,” said Benny Sauerhaft, 89, who was honored at the luncheon for his more than 40 years of volunteer service to the synagogue.Also honored were 93-year-old Abie Roth, nicknamed “Der Malach,” Yiddish for “The Angel,” who opens up the shul each day at 6 a.m., and Shira and Eric Reinhard, the young couple who spearheaded an effort to clean up the synagogue’s dilapidated sanctuary.
The Reinhards dusted corners that hadn’t seen a broom in decades, steamed the carpets and tossed out irreparable or unusable items that had languished for years in the tenement-style building.
“You’d have to walk two blocks to throw anything away because if one of the members found it outside, he would bring it back in,” said Eric Reinhard, 32, describing the Depression-era mentality of many of the elderly congregants.
Despite the recent improvement efforts, to call the Stanton Street Shul modest would be an understatement. Narrow staircases, peeling paint, naked light bulbs, cracked windows and a roof so leaky it can wet the bima during a storm characterize the musty building at 180 Stanton St.
And while the building is infinitely charming, there is no denying that the roof needs replacing. To that end, the shul received an $8,000 grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy and a matching grant of up to $133,200 from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
That’s why Sunday’s luncheon doubled as a fund-raiser that brought in about $15,000 before expenses. If the synagogue matches the full amount of the grant, it will still need to raise more than $20,000 to complete what the architect has designated “first priority work” — fixing the windows and replacing the roof, parapet and fire escape. (The Stanton Street Shul is eligible for public grants because it is on the National Register of Historic Sites.)
The synagogue’s worn structure, though it contrasts with the vitality of the shul’s congregants, stands testament to the group of poor Jewish immigrants from Brzezan, Poland, who founded the shul in 1894.
In the early 20th century, the Lower East Side was home to a half-million Jews. Many of them, like the synagogue’s early members, were impoverished immigrants from Eastern Europe. (According to The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2002, there are about 52,900 Jewish residents today in all of Lower Manhattan, encompassing the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, the East Village, Soho and Tribeca, among other neighborhoods.)
“[The Stanton Street Shul] is very authentic,” said Sampson, 49, a congregant since 1983 and a member of the synagogue’s board of trustees. “Only the rich and the poor can have authentic buildings. The rich can afford to build well and keep it up, and the poor don’t have the money to pachke around.”
Though the Stanton Street Shul has avoided its sale and boosted it membership, substantial funds are needed to keep its building in working order.
“[The Lower East Side] can be a neighborhood that happens to have some Jews living here, or it can be a living Jewish neighborhood, where the continuity of the Jewish community is felt” through the preservation of a critical mass of Jewish institutions like the Stanton Street Shul, Sampson said.
“At this moment,” she said, “it could swing either way.”