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New West End Synagogue, London
Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York, USA - Famous Synagogues
130    Dibyendu Banerjee    14/03/2024

Built in 1887 and located at 12 Eldridge Street, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in the United States, erected by the Eastern European immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side. The edifice, featuring Moorish, Gothic and Romanesque elements and reflecting an eclectic fusion of architectural styles popular for synagogues in both the United States and Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was designed by the architect brothers, Peter and Francis William Herter and served as an important community institution from the day it’s doors opened in 1887, through the 1920s.

eldridge street synagogue new york usa

During those days, the Lower East Side was the most crowded immigrant district of the city and the Eldridge Street Synagogue, officially known as K’hal Adath Jeshurun with Anshe Lubz, was the first major synagogue in the United States for Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European origin.

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The K’hal Adath Jeshurun, the new congregation, originated from the union of two previous Ashkenazi communities, namely Beth Hamedrash or the House of Study and Holche Josher Wizaner, those who Live in Virtue, was made up of diverse worshippers from varied income levels and hailing from diverse parts of Europe.

eldridge street synagogue new york usa
eldridge street synagogue new york usa

From its opening through 1920, around 800 Jewish families were members of the synagogue and more than a thousand people attended its weekly Shabbat services, while on the High Holydays, mounted police were stationed to control the crowds and maintain order in the surrounding streets.

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Throughout those years, apart from functioning as a house of worship, the Synagogue also served as an agency for socialization and a refuge to the new Americans, where poor people could be fed and secure a loan, learn about job and housing opportunities and also make arrangements to care for the sick and the distressed.

eldridge street synagogue new york usa

However, the situation started to change rapidly around 1920, when the affluent members began to move to other areas, while the new immigration laws limited the number of new residents in the Lower East Side. Apart from that, the Great Depression also adversely affected the fortune of the congregant. As a result, the breathtaking main sanctuary with a capacity of 1000 almost looked deserted due to the presence of only a few dozen from the 1930s through the 1950s.

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However, by the 1950s, the authority was forced to cordon off the sanctuary area, as rainwater started to leak into the main sanctuary, while the inner stairs seemed to be instable and unsafe. While the doors of the main sanctuary remained closed due to lack of funds to repair, the congregants chose to worship downstairs, in the Beth Midrash or the study hall and continued to worship there for twenty-five years, from approximately 1955 to 1980.

eldridge street synagogue new york usa

Unfortunately, the main sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue remained closed and untouched till 1986, when the Eldridge Street Project was founded to restore the synagogue and to develop educational and cultural programs. Finally, the project of renovation began in 1991, and was completed twenty years later, in 2007, under the supervision of the architects Giorgio Cavaglieri and Robert Meadows, who meticulously restored the sanctuary to its initial splendour and also added the new rose window on its eastern wall, designed by the artist Kiki Smith and the architect Deborah Gans. While extreme care was taken to preserve the murals, some were re-created where needed. The job also included removal of the over-paints, consolidation of plaster and replication of ornamental plaster elements, wood finishing and decorative paintings including faux-wood graining, marbleizing and gilding by skilled craftsmen, as well as to take necessary measures for allowing the patina of age of the light fixtures to shine through.

eldridge street synagogue new york usa

On 2 December 2007, the imposing building, with its 70-foot-high dome and barrel vaulted ceiling, magnificent stained-glass rose windows, elaborate brass fixtures and hand-stenciled walls, opened to the public as the Museum at Eldridge Street, reflecting its cultural and educational mission to present the history, traditions and culture of the great wave of Jewish immigrants that took place at the turn of the century. However, a small number of worshippers of the Orthodox Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun still meets for Orthodox evening services downstairs, while daytime services are held in the main sanctuary, which has rarely missed a Shabbat or the High Holydays since the synagogue first opened. However, years before it transformed into a museum, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was officially recognized by the government of the United States for its outstanding historical significance and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

New West End Synagogue, London
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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