Photo by David Landis
Rabbi Pesach Ackerman in Anshei Meseritz’s downstairs sanctuary.
needs condo units
on top, rabbi says
By Lesley Sussman
Rabbi Pesach Ackerman, 81, sat behind his small, cluttered desk in a corner of the sanctuary and his face lit up as he talked about the time when he first stepped foot into the historic Congregation Anshei Meseritz synagogue, at 415 E. Sixth St., which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“I was living a few blocks away in Village View and this synagogue was closer to me than any of the other synagogues in the area,” he recalled. “So I started coming here to pray. Then I left for Florida because I was hired out there to be a rabbi. When I came back, I returned to the Meseritz and became an active member of the congregation.”
The rabbi said he fell in love with the old synagogue from the moment he first stepped foot in it.
“There was such a feeling of holiness about it,” he recalled. “It was love at first sight. It was also small and it didn’t have any money. Dues were next to nothing. I often wondered how it supported itself.”
He recalled that in those days religious services at the synagogue were much better attended than they are today. Both the smaller downstairs sanctuary where he was sitting and a larger, upper-level one were in constant use, he remembered. Today, the upper sanctuary is used only on the Jewish high holidays.
Ackerman eventually went on to become the rabbi of the synagogue while at the same time raising a new family. It was not a job, he chuckled, that ever promised to make him a wealthy man. And 40 years later, that’s still the case.
“I’m ashamed to mention how much I got paid back then,” he said. “A newsboy got more money than I did — and still does. But it was a labor of love — a real, true love to help keep Judaism alive. And after all these years, it still is.”
A Lower East Side resident for more than 55 years, Ackerman said synagogue attendance at Meseritz had fallen dramatically over the years that he’s been the rabbi because people either moved out of the neighborhood or died.
“At one time, we had a lot of observant Jews living around here and in Village View,” he explained. “Sometimes our morning services had as many as 20 people attending, and we had 40 or 50 people on a Friday night and Sabbath morning. We also sometimes had three shifts in our Sukkah for the Succoth holiday. But now… .”
The decline in attendance, however, has not dampened his desire to keep the synagogue going. Looking toward the future, the rabbi said he would like to see the synagogue “rebuilt” because the building is slowly deteriorating.
“It just turned 100 and I want it to celebrate 200 years and more,” he said.
The rabbi added that he is well aware of an effort by preservationist groups, such as the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, to designate the building as a landmark, but said he is staunchly opposed to such a move.
“I don’t want landmark status — and neither does my board or most of my congregation,” he asserted. “We don’t want to turn this into some kind of lifeless museum. We want it to be a living and active synagogue — a holy place — and that means growth and making some changes.
“If it doesn’t grow, then you won’t have people praying here anymore,” he added. “It’ll die out and all you’ll have is tour buses pulling up to the front door looking at the architecture. I want to attract more neighborhood people who are interested in Judaism and prayer — not tourists,” he said. “That’s what’s most important and that’s what — God willing — is going to happen here. Landmark status would tie our hands.”
The rabbi said he is certainly not insensitive to the historic value of his synagogue, and promised that any changes made would pay homage to its past.
“For me, keeping the integrity of the synagogue is the main thing,” he stated. “But, at the same time, I also want us to grow.”
One plan for the financially strapped synagogue is to build two additional stories on top of it for condominiums, the rabbi said.
“We have the air rights and this would guarantee a steady monthly income for the synagogue for years to come,” he said. “This much-needed income could be used for much-needed repairs and upkeep.”
Although the synagogue often struggles for a minyan — the minimum of 10 men required by Jewish law for a service to be held — he nonetheless sees signs of a resurgence of interest in Judaism among young Jews in the East Village.
“I think it’s coming back,” he said. “I keep meeting more and more young people who want to know more about their faith. That’s one of the reasons why I want to make sure this remains an active synagogue — not a museum. In this type of synagogue everyone feels welcome, even those who have not attended services for many years.”
Congregation Anshei Meseritz was built in 1910 as a residential dwelling and later converted to a synagogue. Its historical significance is that it is the Lower East Side’s last operating, neoclassical “tenement synagogue.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the areas now known as the East Village and Lower East Side were dotted with synagogues of this kind.