Volume 73, Number 46 | March 17 -23, 2004

Rivington synagogue hangs on, hoping for a revival

By Alan Bastable

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

A recent service at the First Roumanian-American Synagogue.

On the second floor of the First Roumanian-American Congregation, a Lower East Side synagogue, four century-old slabs of white marble hang outside the sanctuary entrance. Inscribed on each are the names of scores of donors who made contributions to the Orthodox synagogue — ranging from $10 to $500 — in the early 1900s.

“And that’s back when $10 was a lot of money,” said Rabbi Shmuel A. Spiegel, whose father led the 140-year-old synagogue until his death in 2001. “Probably two weeks’ pay for some people. Imagine that.”

The days of big-dollar donations are long gone at the synagogue, also known as Shaarey Shamoyim. Because of the rapid decline in the Lower East Side’s Jewish population since World War II and the increase in crime and drugs in the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, the congregation has dwindled, Spiegel said, and contributions have all but dried up. Today his Rivington St. shul has no more than 40 regular members, and it is struggling to stay afloat.

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

The temple’s second-floor gallery has seen better days.

The most obvious evidence of the synagogue’s demise is in the historic second-floor sanctuary, which in its prime was known as “The Cantor’s Carnegie Hall,” for its acoustics and the honor roll of singers and entertainers — George Burns, Red Buttons and Jan Peerce among them — who honed their craft there. Today water damage has left gaping holes in the ceiling, paint is peeling off the walls, a couple of the stained-glass windows are broken and dust is everywhere.

“My dream is to one day fix this place up,” Spiegel said, estimating a restoration of the hall would cost somewhere between $3 million and $4 million.

But first he must pay this month’s heating bill. “It’s $2,000!” he said. “Can you believe it?”

Attendance at the synagogue is so low that Spiegel often is forced to race from shop to shop in his neighborhood to recruit the 10-man quorum, or minyan, he needs to begin his thrice-daily services. “Ask me how I’m going to stay open a year from now, I say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he said, adding that he finances the synagogue’s $75,000 annual operating costs mostly through his own fundraising efforts. “We live day to day.”

Yet, year after year, the synagogue has survived.

Spiegel, who also serves as the synagogue’s accountant, secretary and handyman, has dedicated his life to keeping Shaarey Shamoyim’s doors open. “My most important job is to keep the shul alive,” said Spiegel, whose father, Yaakov, ran the synagogue for more than two decades. “And it can only get better — we have hit rock bottom.”

The state of the sanctuary never looked grimmer than three years ago when the water-damaged roof of the building, which sits directly above the sanctuary, was threatening to collapse. Spiegel acted fast, however, spearheading a fundraising campaign in December 2001 that raised $25,000 and covered repairs to the roof, he said.

Because of the sanctuary’s condition, Spiegel holds his daily services in a makeshift shul in the basement social hall. (He still uses the sanctuary on rare occasions, such as holidays or bar or bat mitzvahs.) After Sabbath services on Saturday afternoons, he offers a hot meal to his congregants — and the occasional drifter.

“Every synagogue is a collection of characters, even those who walk in off the street,” said Herman Lowenhaur, president of the Greenwich Village Synagogue and a regular attendant of Shaarey Shamoyim during the week because his synagogue is closed. “And this one has its share of them.”

Spiegel has dedicated his life to Shaarey Shamoyim not only to keep its rich history alive, but because it still fills a niche in the community. Since it is one of just four synagogues south of Houston St. that offers services daily, he said, it serves an important role for those neighborhood residents and business owners who practice their faith daily. He also teaches torah classes every Tuesday and Sunday.

David Katz, who runs a furniture store on Essex St., is one of the merchants whom Spiegel visits on his daily minyan roundup. “Sometimes he needs to give us a little push to get us where we need to be when we need to be,” said Katz, who has attended afternoon services every weekday at Shaarey Shamoyim for more than 10 years.

But Katz is grateful. He loves the convenience of the synagogue’s location, he said, and, like Spiegel, he is committed to keeping its traditions alive. “It’s a crazy feeling,” he said, “but the synagogue was established over 100 years ago, and I feel a need to help perpetuate its past.”

As for the future of Shaarey Shamoyim, it’s not all bleak. Because the neighborhood is gentrifying so rapidly, Spiegel expects that his synagogue will gradually begin to attract new congregants.

“That’s right,” Lowenhaur said. “Every now and then a young Jew will walk in and is really taken by the place. No question, it has a certain charm.”


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