Volume 75, Number 26 | November 16 -22, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

At a recent bris at Chasam Sofer Synagogue on Clinton St., from left, Rabbi Reuven Fienstein, Rabbi Azriel Siff — the father of the baby, Nacham, and the rabbi of the shul — Rabbi Shaya Richman, the mohel, and Yankie Berger, the baby’s great-uncle.

Lower East Side synagogues experiencing a rebirth

By Sara G. Levin

As he began leading a Jewish cultural walking tour Sunday, urban historian Barry Feldman shrugged. “You know, I hate to sound like a real estate agent,” he said, “but this is what it’s all about: location, location, location.”

Focusing on housing, the tour organized by the Lower East Side Conservancy was steeped in tenement history, but also emphasized an aspect of Lower Manhattan that is now drawing young affluent Jews to stay, a demographic some adherents hope will add new stability to old temples.

“The neighborhood has suffered a lot from people moving away,” said William Yagoda, 28, who attends the newly renovated Chasam Sofer synagogue, built in 1853 at 80 Clinton St. “Basically if you’re Orthodox in Manhattan, you generally move out to a community in Teaneck, Queens or Riverdale, or Brooklyn if you’re more to the right.” Yagoda grew up in one such community in Teaneck, but moved to Manhattan to study at New York University and is now married and lives in the West Village.

Renovations and efforts like tours to raise conservation money symbolize what some people see as a revitalization of Orthodox traditions below Houston St. While a strong Orthodox community continues to thrive around the Grand St. co-ops and the Bialystoker Synagogue, ancient shuls from Delancey to Houston St. stand like lonely outposts of a bygone era. As younger Jews flock to the blocks their great-grandparents or grandparents might have fled the minute they could afford to, Orthodox rabbis are hoping some of them will be attracted to local services.

“I want to build a shul where everyone is welcome,” said Rabbi Azriel Siff of Chasam Sofer, quick to add he means an Orthodox congregation. “I want to build a community center where for anybody who has any issues Jewish related, the place is going to be 80 Clinton St.”

Chasam Sofer synagogue, the area’s oldest functioning shul, is finally finishing a 30-year renovation process begun by the congregation’s wealthy benefactor, Moses Weiser. It has hosted daily minions (a gathering of 10 men for prayer believed to be a commandment) consistently over the past decades, even through periods when it had to pay people to show up at 7 a.m. The temple no longer has to struggle to muster the required quorum of 10 men, and a consistent showing of 20 to 30 worshipers now attend Shabbat services, said Siff. The Stanton St. Shul, a much smaller tenement synagogue around the corner, is also attracting more attendees, but still struggling to combat decrepit building conditions like a leaky roof.

“I’ve seen kids in T-shirts, ski caps and green hair in that place,” said Laurie Tobias Cohen, director of the Lower East Side Conservancy, describing some men who joined recently. Even with some more worshipers, though, the Stanton St. congregation is still pleading for monetary support for repairs.

Cohen and her organization aim to raise $3 million by the end of this year to put toward conservation, but their main project is restoring a larger temple, Beth Hamadresh Hagadol at 60 Norfolk St. According to Cohen, the congregation holds two minions a day but struggles to find enough men to come regularly. An electrical fire seven years ago damaged much of the building, especially the main 1,200-seat sanctuary. Cohen hopes the conservancy can also move into the building once renovated and that it can serve primarily as an educational center and visitors’ center.

For many Lower East Side temples it has been difficult to attract the kind of base boasted by Bialystoker with a congregation that includes about 200 families. And being situated just a couple blocks away from Grand St., either to the north or south, makes a big difference.

“We have a challenge: the neighborhood is growing and expanding but we don’t necessarily see that here,” said Rabbi Shaul Small from the Henry St. Sons of Moses Congregation, a small townhouse sanctuary. “Most of our congregation is of men 60 years and older,” he said. He added that many young people end up walking directly to Bialystoker or Shteible Row (tiny one-room temples on E. Broadway), because they cannot drive to temple on Saturday, and following the teachings of well-known Lower East Side orthodox leader Moshe Feinstein, mothers cannot push baby carriages during the Sabbath either.

On his tour of historic buildings, guide Feldman explained how difficult it was for early American Jews to impose Orthodox uniformity on New York communities. Pausing amid the Chinese signs surrounding the Eldridge St. Synagogue (also under renovation), he told a story of how one rabbi was sent from Europe in the 1890s to streamline Jewish customs in the New World and was ultimately rejected because to follow his kosher rules, meatpackers had to raise their prices, resulting in a community boycott of their meat.

“This led to the recognition that there would never be a chief rabbi in New York,” Feldman noted. A historic lesson, ever-present riffs between Old and New World still stand.

“One thing that did surprise me was their Kiddush tradition,” congregation member Yagoda said while describing Chasam Sopher. “I wasn’t used to eating at separate male/female tables,” he said, explaining that in most other synagogues he has attended, sexes are separated during prayer services, but not at any other time. “I don’t think any of us, at least of my generation, really believe in those differences between men and women. It seems like a viewpoint from another era.” Many of the temples are proud of their antiquated traditions.

“You don’t really find a Jew out there who doesn’t have a connection to the Lower East Side, and this shul bridges the gap between the 80- or 90-year-old members and the young students who feel like they’re being exposed to the Old World,” said Chasam Sofer’s Rabbi Siff. His congregation includes some men who have lived in the neighborhood over 70 years. To emphasize a new beginning, though, Siff’s congregation commissioned a Torah to be written beginning last year. After a scribe worked on it in the temple throughout the year, attracting onlookers to watch the handwritten process, it is now being finished in Israel and will return for final touches and a celebration in the next couple of weeks, the rabbi said.

Last week, Siff also celebrated a bris for one of his new twins. Over 100 friends and relatives gathered to congratulate his family. Siff’s father is also a rabbi, at the Young Israel of Manhattan on E. Broadway, the same temple where Edward Silver, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s father, is co-president. In attendance at the bris at Chasam Sofer, Sheldon Silver, a member of the Bialystoker Synagogue, blended into the crowd in his glasses and brimmed hat.

“It’s great,” Silver said, describing the day’s celebration. “It’s a symbol of the revival of this entire neighborhood.”

Many of the family members in attendance had come from another borough. A few steps away, one woman waved her hand exaggerating how impressed she was by the newly renovated rooms, but adding how she wished some of the other shuls could also have a generous benefactor.

“There’s an old Jewish saying,” she said. “They should build synagogues on wheels! Because Jews move around too much.”

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