Historic New York synagogue celebrates $20M restoration
Building will now serve as Orthodox synagogue, nonsectarian museum dedicated to American Jewish history.
A historic Manhattan synagogue celebrated its rebirth Sunday after a renovation that took more than 20 years and cost $20 million.
Roberta Brandes Gratz, an author and preservationist who spearheaded the effort to restore the Lower East Side's Eldridge Street Synagogue in the 1980s, said the once-grand Moorish-style structure was then in a sad state of disrepair.
"The water was pouring through the roof," Gratz said. "Pigeons roosted in the balcony. There was no heat, electricity or water in the sanctuary, and dust was thick on the pews."
But the 70-foot vaulted ceilings were intact on Sunday, the brass light fixtures gleamed, and the stained-glass windows, carved wood and intricate murals looked as pristine as when the Manhattan synagogue first was dedicated in 1887.
Eldridge Street Synagogue was New York's first congregation built by Eastern European Jews and drew as many as 1,000 worshippers during its peak years in the early decades of the 20th century.
But its membership dwindled as Jews left the Lower East Side, and by the 1950s what was left of the congregation met in the basement.
While that lower floor will continue to function as an Orthodox synagogue, the building will now serve as a nonsectarian museum dedicated to American Jewish history and the history of the Lower East Side.
The Museum at Eldridge Street will host programs about vaudeville music, Yiddish literature, family history research and other topics.
The cantor at Sunday's rededication ceremony, Max Fuchs, had led High Holy Day services at Eldridge Street in 1948.
Many of those in attendance had worshipped there in decades past, or their families had.
The synagogue's neighborhood just south of Canal Street is now part of Chinatown.
Noting that newcomers continue to stream into the area, several speakers on Sunday linked the synagogue's history to current debates over immigration.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich, the keynote speaker, said "America's greatness lies in its ability to integrate people from diverse backgrounds."
"The ugly nativist animus that once hounded the immigrants of the Lower East Side and elsewhere, Jewish and Irish and Italian and Asian alike, is reappearing in our public life," Rich said. "Legitimate concerns about national security and the rule of law are being overrun by the language of fear and bigotry. Against this early 21st-century backdrop, the renewal of Eldridge Street is more important than ever."
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