Striving to Preserve Once-Thriving Synagogues

From Associated Press

When a five-story glass window collapsed onto the balcony of one of the Lower East Side's oldest synagogues last summer, the elderly congregation waited more than a month before asking for help to fix it.

While shards of glass lay scattered on the floor, the 148-year-old building's enormous sanctuary was vulnerable to wind, rain and the occasional pigeon.

"It was literally open to the elements," said Ken Lustbader, a preservationist at the private New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Like many other synagogues in the area, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has fallen on hard times. The neighborhood was once a thriving center of Jewish immigrant life, the first stop for hundreds of thousands arriving from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century.

In those days, Sabbath worshipers filled Beth Hamedrash Hagadol's 1,500-seat sanctuary to overflowing. Now the spacious hall is dark and drafty.

Stacks of dusty prayer books lie on old wooden seats. Yellowing prayer shawls are scattered about, and paint is peeling off walls bulging with dampness. A winter chill seeps in through the loose windows and rotting frames.

The 100-member congregation abandoned the large sanctuary long ago, moving to a smaller room for everything but the High Holy Days. "No one's done anything here for decades," says Holly Kaye, a consultant working with the United Jewish Council of the East Side to repair several synagogues.

The congregation has steadily lost members for years as younger Jews moved out of the Lower East Side.

"You have a few old-timers left, and that's it," says Rabbi Yitzchok Singer of the Bialystoker synagogue. When he took over the congregation in 1960, Singer recalls, "the whole neighborhood was inhabited by Jewish people. . . . It has really changed. It's almost gone."

Although Bialystoker has continued to thrive, many century-old synagogues in the area don't have money for the most basic upkeep.

For Rabbi Azriel Siff of Congregation Chasam Sopher, it's painful to watch the area's Jewish life fade away.

"Thirty-five, 40 years ago, you would have 900 people on a major holiday," he says. Today, only 40 or 50 worshipers turn out at Chasam Sopher, even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

But Siff, who sells medical supplies during the week and leads services on weekends, says his dwindling congregation reflects shifting demographics. "I would be concerned if I thought it was a sign of the Jewish religion deteriorating," he says. "I see it more as a physical deterioration rather than a spiritual deterioration."

The United Jewish Council hopes to reverse the decline with the Landmarks Conservancy's help. Executive Director Joel Kaplan is working with Kaye to organize a handful of local synagogues in joint fund-raising.

Kaye calls the buildings "hidden jewels" and says banding together is their best chance.

The conservancy has given thousands of dollars in seed grants to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Bialystoker and the First Romanian American synagogue. Kaye and Kaplan are helping the temples seek further aid from foundations and preservation groups.

They also hope to draw support from Jewish people in the metropolitan area and beyond.

"People who had roots here remember it fondly," Kaye says. "There are a lot of tourists coming down, and they want to know, 'Where's the Jewish Lower East Side?'

"And it's still here, but it's invisible."

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