Had it been two blocks south and a bit farther east, the 16th Street Synagogue would have been included in Gerard R. Wolfe’s excellent new edition of his classic work, “The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side: A Retrospective and Contemporary View,” (Empire State Editions/Fordham University Press). That shul, formerly the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue, is being evicted from its building, after a long dispute with a developer.
Those interested in New York City’s building genealogy and the intertwining connections between real estate interests, immigrant history, shifting populations and synagogue life will find much of interest in Wolfe’s book, first published in 1978. He details the active synagogues (12) and the “lost” or endangered synagogues (24), and also includes a great chronological chart documenting shul mergers and breakaways in New York City, 1654 – 1875.
Wolfe, an architectural historian, unpeels layers of the past behind the congregations and their buildings. He pays careful attention to the special features of the buildings (the Bialystoker Synagogue, built as a church, may have been a station on the Underground Railroad, sheltering runaway slaves) and their architects (the Erste Warshawer Congregation, First Warsaw Congregation, now repurposed to art studios and residence, was designed by Emery Roth, known for designing the Sam Remo apartment house on Central Park West); and their struggles, some ongoing.
Sadly, in this edition, Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street moved from the active synagogue to the endangered section, shortly before the book went to press. That shul ‘s sanctuary has magnificent wall paintings and carvings, along with a storied history of distinguished rabbis, most recently, the late Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, who had been the rabbi of the Kovno ghetto. A group including his son-in-law and leaders of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy is trying to secure funding for restoration and renovation.
A number of these shul stories have contemporary resonance. In the 1970s, remaining congregants of the Sons of Israel Kalwarie, also known as the Pike Street Shul — which was one of the wealthiest congregations on the Lower East Side in its heyday at the turn of the century — got into a dispute about selling the building to a developer. Twenty years later, the courts permitted the sale to go forward. Later designated a New York City landmark, the building now houses the Sung Tak Buddhist Temple on its main floor, with a market on the ground floor and residential housing above.
Wolfe also writes of the founding of the Young Israel movement and the first flagship synagogue, Young Israel of Manhattan, on East Broadway. In fact, it was at the Kalwarie Shul where, in 1913, Dr. Judah Magnes, then head of the New York Kehillah (and before that rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun), gave a famous talk where, according to legend, someone in the audience cried out, “We are the young of Israel,” and he responded “Yes, that shall be the name, Young Israel.”
As Wolfe recounts, Young Israel of Manhattan sold its East Broadway building to a developer in 2007 for the construction of a condominium that was to have included a new synagogue, but the developer backed out, “leaving the incomplete building as an empty skeleton….a sad visual reminder of where the great Young Israel Synagogue once stood.” The congregation, though, is still active, and meets at the East Side Torah Center on Shabbat (and elsewhere during the week).
So too the 16th Street Synagogue has found temporary shelter, at the Bronfman Center on Shabbat and the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue on weekdays.