The Miracle on Eldridge Street: Restoring a landmark of American Jewish history

EPISODE 304 The Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the most beautifully restored places in the United States, a testament to the value of preserving history when it seems all is lost to ruin.

Today the Museum at Eldridge Street maintains the synagogue, built in 1887 as one of the first houses of worship in the country for Eastern European orthodox Jews. The Moorish revival synagogue, adorned in symbolic decoration and sumptuous stained glass, reflected the Gilded Age opulence of the day while keeping true to the spirit of the Jewish faith.

But by the 1950s, most of the Lower East Side’s Jewish population had left for other districts, and the remaining congregation sealed off its beautiful sanctuary. For decades, it was hidden from all eyes, the ruinous space left to the ravages of deterioration. “Pigeons roosted in the balcony, benches were covered with dust, and stained glass windows had warped with time.”

However, thanks to a handful of determined preservationists, this capsule of Jewish American life in the late 19th century has not only been restored, but even elevated to a new height. The Museum at Eldridge Street is not only a celebration of Jewish American culture, but a breathtaking tribute to the power of preservation.

PLUS: We discuss the birth of Jewish New York and how the city’s growth directly changed the way Jewish Americans worshiped in the 19th century. Did you know that evidence of New York’s very first Jewish congregation sits just a couple blocks from the foot of Eldridge Street?

LISTEN NOW — THE MIRACLE ON ELDRIDGE STREET

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THE TAKEOUT

A bonus after-show podcast for those who support us on Patreon.Greg and Tom continue their conversation about the story of Jewish New York and the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

1) Another historic synagogue of the Lower East Side — Beth Hamedrash Hagodol — has not the same fortunes as the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
2) Included in additional interview footage with Chelsea Dowling from the Museum at Eldridge Street.


A big thank you to Chelsea J. Dowell and the staff at the Museum at Eldridge Street for allowing us to record at the synagogue. For more information about special events and visiting hours, check out their website.


All present images courtesy Bowery Boys/Greg Young

Eldridge Street Synagogue in 1939:

NYC Municipal Archives

Images of the synagogue before restoration (courtesy the Museum at Eldridge Street)

The First Shearith Israel Graveyard, located a short distance from the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Chatham Square at 55-57 St. James Place.

Examples of synagogue architecture — both currently operating synagogues and former synagogues. (And some of the operating synagogues are in former Christian churches.)

Bialystoker Synagogue
Stanton Street Synagogue,
Congregation Chasam Sopher on Clinton Street
Today’s Angel Orensanz Center, within the oldest surviving synagogue structure in New York City.
Podhajcer Shul
Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum
Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum

FURTHER READING

Beyond the Facade: A Synagogue, A Restoration, A Legacy: The Museum at Eldridge Street by Larry Bortniker, Roberta Brandes Gratz, et al.
Jewish New York: The Remarkable Story of a City and a People by multiple authors (Deborah Dash Moore, Jeffrey S. Gurock, Annie Polland, Howard B. Rock, Daniel Soyer, Diana L. Linden)
Landmark of the Spirit: The Eldridge Street Synagogue by Annie Polland
The Synagogues of the Lower East Side by Gerard R. Wolfe

FURTHER LISTENING

If you’re interested in Jewish New York history or subjects related to the Lower East Side, check out these past episodes of the Bowery Boys podcast:

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