Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Les Sussman, right, told Councilmember Rosie Mendez, left, that if the Anshei Meseritz synagogue collapsed tomorrow, she’d be responsible. Like Mendez, Elissa Sampson, center, volunteer docent at the Lower East Side Conservancy, also advocated for saving the historic shul.
The developers have detached, but shul debate keeps on going
By Albert Amateau
Everything is in dispute regarding the East Village synagogue whose board of directors last month voted to authorize a developer to demolish the crumbling 1910 structure and replace it with a six-story apartment building with a new synagogue on the first two floors.
There are even three opinions on how to render the name of Edath Lei’Israel Anshei Meseritz — or Meserich, or Meseritch — at 415 E. Sixth St.
A rally on Thurs., Aug 14, of preservationists and neighbors seeking to save the building turned into a lively free-for-all argument over who constitutes the real congregation. But two hours before the rally, Howard J. Rubenstein, the public relations guru, representing the designated developer, issued an e-mail statement: “As of now Kushner Companies is no longer affiliated with this project. They are assessing all options.”
Preservation advocates, however, still fear the synagogue could be demolished at any time. They pointed out that a contractor had applied to the Department of Buildings on June 18 for a full demolition permit. Although the permit has not been approved, advocates say it justifies their anxiety about the fate of the synagogue.
Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side and a co-sponsor of the Aug. 14 rally, said in a phone interview later, “The ‘as of now’ [in the statement] means they could jump in later. We’re still going to be very vigilant.”
Kaplan told the rally, “We are here to save Anshei Meseritz from the wrecker’s ball.”
Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and Katherine Spaulding, managing director of the East Village Community Coalition, told the rally that they submitted a request on Aug. 8 to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to extend landmark designation protection to the shul.
City Councilmember Rosie Mendez recalled her stand — ultimately successful — to stop the Catholic Archdiocese of New York from demolishing St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B. She pledged to stand by the effort to save Anshei Meseritz, “not just because it’s a historic building,” she said, “but also because it’s a monument to the diversity of the neighborhood.”
Preservation advocates, at the least, want any redevelopment plan to keep the existing building and build a residential addition on top of it.
On the morning of July 7, the synagogue board of directors met in the basement of 415 E. Sixth St. (the main sanctuary is too dilapidated to accommodate congregants) and heard the Kushner Companies representative explain the offer to pay the congregation $725,000 and replace the shul with a six-story building with 10 apartments on the top four floors and a new synagogue on the first two floors. Brian Burstin, attorney for the shul’s board of directors, told The Villager at the time that the congregation would own the land and the first two floors while the developer would retain residual ownership of the residential floors. Seven members of the board voted to accept the deal while two abstained and one did not return a ballot.
Pesach Ackerman, 79, the synagogue’s rabbi for 40 years — unsalaried except for an annual Yom Kippur appeal — and a member of the board that approved the deal, hailed it at the time as the best chance to keep a synagogue on the site. After the Kushner announcement last week, Ackerman said he thought the developer had “put the deal on hold.”
But Burstin said on Aug. 15 that the developer pulled out of the deal because disagreements about timing of the project arose about two weeks after the July 7 vote. He acknowledged that the preservation issue might have helped push the deal off the table.
“I’m disappointed at Rosie Mendez’s position,” said Burstin. “I spoke to her a few weeks ago and there was no problem. She could have called me and said that she had reconsidered the issue.”
Regarding the demolition permit, preservation advocates noted that the application had been made more than two weeks before the board of directors had voted to accept the Kushner proposal.
“Some chutzpah!” Kaplan said.
One neighbor at the Aug. 14 rally was skeptical about preservation efforts.
“This building is going to collapse,” said Les Sussman, who lives three blocks from the shul and has worshiped there virtually every day for 10 years. “It would take a million dollars to preserve — who’s going to pay for it?” he asked.
“We’ve raised several million dollars to save other synagogues on the Lower East Side,” Kaplan retorted.
Sussman also said that nobody at the rally ever worshipped at the shul. But at least two men among about 80 demonstrators said they appeared at morning services. One of them said that although the building is dilapidated, it is not in danger of collapse.
“My family has been involved here since before I was born,” said Frieda Rapfogel Fried. “My father was president of the congregation and led the effort to save it in 1960.”
Fried, who attended the July 7 board meeting but was not eligible to vote, is the sister of William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Rapfogel, husband of Judy Rapfogel — who is chief of staff for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — has charged that the synagogue’s board of directors has denied synagogue membership to people who regularly worship at the shul. William Rapfogel, who also has questions about the eligibility of board of directors members, has asked the state Attorney General’s Office to look into the issue. The A.G.’s office must approve the disposition of property that belongs to nonprofit charities and religious agencies.
The synagogue was organized in 1888 by immigrants from the town of Meseritz in Poland.
“There was a maggid of Meseritz, an itinerant preacher who was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism in the late 18th century,” said Elissa Sampson (Esther Malka), a Lower East Side history maven whose husband is a regular worshiper at Anshei Meseritz. “People were very proud to be from the same town as the maggid,” Sampson said.
In 1910, the congregation acquired the three-story tenement and hired Herman Horenburger, an architect and civil engineer, to convert the building into a two-story synagogue with a raised basement and a limestone-and-brick facade in the neoclassical style.
According to the preservationists’ letter to the L.P.C., the synagogue’s construction cost was $15,000 in 1910.