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REVIEW: The Jewish Week

22nd January 2013


The Tangled History of Shuls and Real Estate

By Sandee Brawarsky

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. READ MORE