Two small nail holes on one of the plaster walls at the front door of a building on West 29th Street are the only hints of the site’s rich Jewish past.
The building, 230 W. 29th, was from 1965 to 1995 the home of the Fur Center Synagogue, one of a handful of small but thriving congregations in Midtown that were established in the middle of the last century to serve the spiritual needs of specific trades; the holes, at shoulder height, likely helped hold a mezuzah in place.
A victim of shifting Jewish demographics and the economic forces of globalization, the old synagogue today houses the Chelsea Subud Center, headquarters of the non-denominational spiritual movement based on the “experience which arises from within.” Scaffolding stands on the street for repairs on the building’s brick façade.
Besides the small holes, no Magen David or Hebrew letters are visible outside. Joan Rosenfelt, a member of the congregation for a decade in its final years who now lives in Sullivan County, remembers the synagogue’s halcyon days. “It was a lovely place,” headed by a young charismatic rabbi, she said. “It was a beehive of activity.”
That is the past.
Here is the present.
On the sidewalk outside the Millinery Center Synagogue, on Sixth Avenue at West 38th Street, pedestrians browse through piles of sheet sets and towels stacked on small tables. The items, bought wholesale, sometimes at closeout sales, are sold for a profit, bringing some much-needed funds into the congregation, whose original membership base of men and women in the hat-making industry is largely gone.
On the sidewalk outside the Actors’ Temple, a half-mile northwest on West 47th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, theatergoers line up several nights a week to attend the plays staged in the synagogue’s sanctuary. The temple has rented its space to Off-Broadway shows since 2006 to supplement the congregation’s limited income, which decreased once the performers in vaudeville and television, who gave the congregation its name and character, disappeared, dying or moving to Los Angeles.
And outside the Garment Center Congregation … actually, there is no outside now. The congregation, based for a half-century in a building on West 40th Street around the corner from Seventh Avenue, has been meeting since the summer in a second-floor office suite two blocks away on Broadway. The congregation will meet in its temporary home for the next three or four years while its site is torn down, to be rebuilt in expanded quarters, part of a 20-story hotel complex. The synagogue’s move drew attention because the developer, Sharif El-Gamal, is a Muslim and better known as one of the backers of the scaled-back plan to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center.
The three surviving synagogues, and the now-defunct Fur Center Synagogue, represent a small slice of 20th-century Jewish history, a phenomenon that has roots in the Jewish communities of Europe but that has a uniquely New York flavor.
“Once upon a time,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, “many synagogues brought together people of similar trades.” The butchers’ synagogue, the bakers’ synagogue, the tailors’ synagogue. Particularly in the Old Country.
“In the U.S., it’s very uncommon,” Sarna said. “It was more usual in this country to bring together people based on where they came from [landsmen].”
Only New York City had the critical mass of Jews who dominated certain professions to be able to form such congregations, Sarna says. “To my knowledge, outsiders were not kept out, but they did often feel like outsiders.
“Of course, today,” he said, “when most Jews live far from their place of occupation, these synagogues are less needed. There are certainly synagogues known for having large numbers of doctors, or large numbers of folks in high-tech, but the synagogue is not named for them and does not cater to them on that basis. Most Jews today are not exclusively interested in interacting just with people in their own business — or part of their business culture.”
Which makes the survival of Midtown’s few trade-based congregations, and their efforts to stay afloat, all the more remarkable.
The Midtown congregations were formed for the sake of Jewish furriers, hat makers and garment workers — the Actors’ Temple began as a standard neighborhood house of worship, before it began its outreach to members of the entertainment profession — who typically worked within a mile or two of their fellow tradesmen. Most lived on the Lower East Side or the outer boroughs, taking the subway to work. Many wanted a place where they could say memorial prayers during the day or on Jewish holidays; others, somewhere where they could pray on Shabbat or Jewish holidays before heading off to their jobs.
Typical is Marc Abramson, executive vice president of the Garment Center Congregation, who said, “Basically we get members who come to say Kaddish.
“We’re the second shul” for most members, who belong to a first congregation where they live, said Abramson. Which means the trade synagogues can’t charge much for membership — typically $75 to $150 a year, far under the four-figure range of most area congregations.
For all the extant trade synagogues, membership is a fluid concept; the congregations count as members men and women who show up regularly, or occasionally, making a token donation or none at all.
The synagogues, all facing diminished membership numbers (the original members’ children went into more prestigious, better-paying fields), buildings in various degrees of disrepair (leaky roofs are a common complaint), and shaky budgets (overhead is kept to a minimum), are a study in survival; all have reached out to a new profile of members and worshippers, while trying, with varying degrees of success, to hold onto the remaining members of their founding professions.
CPAs and IT experts and attorneys have largely replaced the manual laborers.
The Actors’ Temple has the best record of maintaining its ties to the type of people who gave the congregation its fame. “We do have actors and performers,” said Jill Hausman, the synagogue’s rabbi and cantor. But they’re a minority of the membership. “We don’t have the big names.”
Rabbi Hausman is a veteran singer who previously served as part-time spiritual leader of the Boro Park Progressive Synagogue in Brooklyn and as an environmental biologist. She has made an effort to stress the building’s unique past and to make entertainers feel at home, by inviting members to perform or speak at the synagogue, and by posting on the walls biographies of the boldface personalities (like E.G. Robinson, Sophie Tucker and some of the Three Stooges) whose names appear on the synagogue’s stained-glass windows and memorial plaques.
“I felt accepted there,” said Steve Greenstein, an actor-writer who lives in northern New Jersey and has belonged to the Actors’ Temple since he moved back to the Northeast from Los Angeles in 1999. “I needed a place to worship,” where he would not be “harangued” by people unfamiliar with life in the entertainment industry, he said. At the Temple, he said, he hears no silly questions.
The congregation’s finances are shaky, said Rabbi Hausman, “a fulltime rabbi on a part-time salary”; membership was down to a dozen people when she came in 2006; now it’s up to 200. A few dozen show up on Friday nights, fewer on Saturday mornings.
To pay for repairs, the Temple holds occasional fundraising events, conducts a High Holidays appeal, and rents out its sanctuary to Off-Broadway, non-union theatrical productions. “We don’t always have access to our space,” the rabbi says.
“Not Your Grandfather’s Temple!” a flyer declares.
Worship services there take place on Shabbat, “a Reform-style service with a Conservative prayer book.” The Temple, which was at first Orthodox then became Conservative, is unaffiliated — “post-denominational,” Rabbi Hausman said.
Of the three still-surviving trade synagogues, the Millinery Center Synagogue has the most distinctive approach to fundraising.
Tuvia Yamnik, a part-time cantor and handler, peddles sheets and towels outside several afternoons a week, shouting “100 percent Egyptian cotton!” and splitting the profits with the shul.
The money helps, says Rabbi Hayim Wahrman, who has served there since 1992. The congregation “was wealthy in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says nostalgically.
The rabbi leads services, teaches Kabbalah classes, recruits members, books concerts there and orchestrates the building’s repair.
Inside, it is musty, the wooden walls peeling and the bookshelves collapsing, the result of recent flooding.
Mendy Mittelman, from Flatbush, a frequent davener at the Synagogue, shows a visitor the damage after a recent Mincha service. “The floor,” he said, pointing down. “The roof,” he said, pointing up. He keeps pointing around the sanctuary.
Does the disarray bother him? No. “It’s convenient” – the Synagogue is near his midtown office.
Compared to the Actor’s Temple and the Millinery Center Synagogue, the Garment Center Congregation is in the best financial condition.
“We have a [full-time] rabbi and a 99-year lease for a dollar” — a dollar a year rent, arranged about 50 years ago by Albert List, a wealthy industrialist and backer of the congregation who bought the land and arranged the favorable terms, said Arnold Brown, a retired garment manufacturer who has been an active member for a few decades. The synagogue runs no activities besides services every day. “If you have very little overhead,” Brown said, “you can maintain a shul.”
“We never miss a minyan” — the required ten men in an Orthodox service, he said.
The rabbi is Norman Listokin, a raconteur who greets — and alternately berates — both first-time visitors and old-time members, establishing an atmosphere of familiarity.
Rabbi Listokin declined to be interviewed for this article, but Brown and Abramson said the number of men and women attending the synagogue’s daily services has remained constant since the move to the temporary quarters.
The Garment Center Congregation’s future?
Brown and Abramson said they are optimistic and looking forward to returning to the congregation’s old site; the new building will feature a refurbished sanctuary and two floors below for social events. The area that was home to the garment workers who founded the congregation still attracts a large number of Jewish visitors and Jews working in nearby office buildings, Abramson said. “Midtown is exploding.”