Photo by Jefferson Siegel
A view of the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s interior with its new, star-studded, stained-glass window.
Temple rehab aimed for stars and, 25 years later, pulls if off
By Aline Reynolds
The restoration of the Museum and Synagogue at Eldridge Street is finally complete. The installation of a large stained-glass window earlier this month on the synagogue’s eastern wall marked the end of the building’s quarter-century-long overhaul.
The circular window features the Star of David and has a striking pattern of golden stars against a shimmering blue backdrop.
“This is indeed the crown of our jewel, the glorious capstone of 25 years of effort,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, the museum’s founder. “In multiple ways, this restoration has become a model of how to save our sacred heritage, how to advance preservation, the first building block of sustainable development.”
She and others on the museum’s board of trustees celebrated the milestone at a gala last Thursday evening at the synagogue. Among the speakers were Mayor Bloomberg, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik and the window’s designers, artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.
“The synagogue has been a center of life for so many generations who settled on the Lower East Side…and this is a spectacular contemporary window,” said Bloomberg, who helped secure $6 million for the renovations.
The mayor alluded to religious tolerance in light of the controversy around the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero, a project he vehemently supports.
“I just wanted to say if there’s any group that should be supportive of people’s right to pray, it’s the Jews who are here in this country who have a history of being persecuted,” he said.
The synagogue, he added, has done an “exceptional” job at reinforcing tolerance among its members.
“This building really reminds us how far we’ve come over the last 123 years,” he said.
The mayor traces his own roots back to the Lower East Side: His maternal grandmother was born on Mott St., about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue.
Gopnik, the gala’s keynote speaker, talked about the 1887 synagogue’s history and the many obstacles Jews have faced worldwide to freely practice their religion.
“A bunch of Lower East Side merchants decided to come together and build a great big building in honor of their faith,” he said. “The synagogue symbolizes that kind of resilience.”
Of the synagogue’s stained-glass centerpiece, Gopnik said, “A window is in its very nature a thing of enormous fragility. But it’s deeply rooted in tradition — and in the deepest sense, a suggestion of faith.”
Bonnie Dimun, the museum’s executive director, praised Smith and Gans for their creation, saying she was taken aback when she first laid eyes on the window.
“The 1,200 pieces of glass started to move — as I sat there, and the hours went by, I was mesmerized at how a piece of glass could be alive,” she said.
Smith explained how the window represents cutting-edge lamination techniques.
“It’s the first time a studio in America has produced such a large piece of glass with this new technology; so it actually brings new technology to this country,” she told the crowd.
“It’s been such a joy to spend so much time in this room, and we hope our window is a reflection of it,” said an emotional Gans.
Smith and Gans were then honored with glass plaques, unused fragments of their stained-glass window.
The new window’s presence in a historic, 19th-century building is a marriage of the old and the new.
“I think it’s a wonderful symbol of what’s already going on here — the fact that this is a beautiful, historic site, but it’s a site with new life and new meaning for people of all backgrounds,” said Amy Stein Milford, the museum’s deputy director.
Many in the crowd gazed admiringly at the glistening stained glass during and after the talks.
“It’s eye-catching, and it fills the space nicely,” said Lee Kreindel, 20, who prays at the synagogue and volunteers at special events there.
“I’m very excited by it,” said Mark Mirsky, a board of trustees member, who said he grew tired of staring at the four rectangular glass tablets during Sabbath that were previously embedded in the eastern wall.
The building’s original rose stained-glass window shattered during a 1938 hurricane, according to lore. The clear glass tablets, which had served as substitutes for the window since the 1940s, now sit in the synagogue’s Family History Center, on the building’s ground floor, which has exhibits of immigrants’ journeys to America.
The new window is the masterly finishing touch to substantial interior fixes of the space, which sources say were imperative. More than 18,000 public and private benefactors nationwide contributed to the entire project, which cost about $18.5 million.
“It was in awful shape before,” said Mirsky, who has attended Sabbath at the synagogue since 1982. “When I came in here, there were pigeons flying through the roof and the dust was at least an inch thick.” Mirsky also recalled one of the windows falling out of its framing in the mid-1990’s.
“It was a wreck — we couldn’t pray in those conditions,” said his son, Tsvi Sitzer, a first-year student at New York Institute of Technology.
Synagogue staff members realized repairs were sorely needed, but had to figure out how to update the space while preserving its original architecture.
“It was the classic preservation dilemma,” Stein said. “The motto was not to go back to its original grandeur — that it had to be just what it was in 1887 — but rather, let the building tell its story.”
Starting in the mid-1980’s, repairs were made to the building’s roof and walls, and new heating and lighting systems were installed. The restoration was done in several phases as outside funding trickled in, Milford said.
“I’m looking forward to finally praying upstairs” in the main synagogue room, Tsvi Sitzer said. Previously, he and his friends would pray in small rooms on the building’s ground floor.
Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of only 15 on the Lower East Side that have active Sabbaths, according to David Sitzer.
“Many people said to me, ‘Why are they raising funds for a synagogue basically outside the Jewish community?’” he said. “Because it’s such a beautiful building, and it would be a shame to let it go.”