By ELLEN LEVITTPublished: MAY 18, 2015 03:25Advertisement
Once upon a time, Manhattan's Lower East Side was a huge neighborhood that housed thousands upon thousands of Jewish people. Most were of Eastern or Central European origin but there were Middle Eastern and Levantine Jews as well. The area was blanketed with many Jewish institutions such as shuls and schools, as well as social service organizations and Jewish businesses.In 2015 there are Jewish institutions in this area but far fewer. And the Lower East Side name covers a smaller portion of this parcel. The northern section is more often called the East Village, and Alphabet City as well. Why? Because it encompasses Avenues A, B, C and D. (Creative, huh?) The vast majority of the streets are on a grid.I describe this area for you because it is a section of Manhattan in which I have conducted many walking tours. I devised what appears to be the one and only East Village Lost Synagogues Walking Tour, and it traverses East 1st Street through East 8th Street, from First Avenue to Avenue D. There are a dozen former synagogue buildings still standing, as well as one that is currently closed and in limbo but which supposedly will reopen (not holding my breath, sadly) and a completely gone synagogue that is commemorated by a sign in a small park.Today I took members of a family from Long Island, New York (a suburb east of New York City) and we strolled up and down the streets of this area, looking at former synagogues. This is my known field of expertise, as I have written three books on the subject and maintain a Facebook page devoted to the topic ("The Lost Synagogues of New York City and New Jersey," to be precise). I also showed the family the one remaining active synagogue, called Community Synagogue. Funny enough it is housed in a building that had been built as a church; meanwhile, several of the closed synagogue buildings in this neighborhood have been turned into churches. The remainder are private residences and one function as a multi-purpose community center.We had the chance to go inside a few of the buildings as well and saw evidence of their Jewish past inside and outside. Most of these buildings still sport some Judaic remnants: Jewish star stair railings, Hebrew words on outer walls, stained glass windows with Jewish motifs, and more. The people we encounter along the way always seem pleased to show us the insides of the buildings, and relate their memories. At one East 6th Street former synagogue, now a Latino Pentecostal church, a female parishioner knew the rabbi and his wife who were at the synagogue up through the mid-1960s. Apparently the congregation then sold the building to the church. I know some of you will be aghast, won't believe this, and so on, but this is the story I have been told. And the church congregation has managed to retain some of the outside and inside Judaica.The shul that is in limbo is also on East 6th Street but further west. Its name is Anshei Meseritz and it is a small shul. Currently all the stained glass windows are gone (and I really hope they are being stored carefully) but you can still read the name in Hebrew, and there is also a carving above the second floor window that reads "Bet HaKneseet." A few years ago I did attend a Sukkot service here and it was a congregation barely holding on. The rabbi died and the building was sold to a developer who claims (even in the New York Daily News) that the synagogue will be reopened in the future, albeit with pricey condominiums built up behind it.Do you ever stop to think of religion in terms of real estate? That may seem rather crass to many of you, but it cannot be denied that real estate is a factor at least in terms of public worship. Ponder that a bit.
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