The first synagogue built by Eastern European Jews in New York City has undergone a massive, $20 million renovation and it recently reopened. Victoria Cavaliere reports from VOA's New York bureau that the synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side is an icon of Jewish and immigrant history in New York.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is a striking, Moorish-style structure that stands out because of its location in the heart of what is now the city's bustling Chinatown district.
The synagogue was built in 1887, and for about 50 years had a thriving congregation of Eastern European immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side.
Amy Milford, deputy director of the museum at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, says immigrant Jews worshiped in store-fronts and people's homes before the synagogue was built. "If you look at Eldridge Street, you see these towers with stars of David, and it proudly proclaimed the building a Jewish site. This was a pretty amazing thing for this community of immigrants who had come from Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. Places where they had been persecuted for being Jewish," she said.
By the 1950's, the congregation had dwindled as Jews left the Lower East Side and moved uptown and to Brooklyn. Only a small number of highly observant Orthodox Jews remained, meeting in the building's basement.
The once-grand sanctuary fell into disrepair, and leaks from the roof badly damaged the brass fixtures, stained glass windows, murals and woodwork.
Milford says pigeons even roosted in the ceiling's wood beams.
In the mid-1980s, a New York historian named Gerard Wolfe spearheaded an effort to restore the building's original grandeur.
The project took 20 years and cost more than $20 million. "What's so interesting about this restoration is that we didn't want to make it look brand new. We really wanted the building to tell its stories. We've even left one area unrestored. That's because we want people to know the whole story of the building," Ms. Milford said.
Milford says the renovation marks a new chapter in the synagogue and the history of Jews in New York. She says the synagogue will function as a museum and a learning center, but she adds that its orthodox congregation will continue to gather in the structure, as it has for nearly a century.