Remembering New York's Oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue, Gutted by a Fire

Founded in 1852, it was first a Baptist church, but eventually served as the seat of New York City's only chief rabbi and was a transformative center for eastern European Jews after the Holocaust

Firemen spray the burned Beth Hamedrash synagogue in New York City, U.S., May 14, 2017.
JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

NEW YORK - When the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol burned nearly to the ground on Sunday, it destroyed not only what had once been a beautiful anchor synagogue of the Lower East Side, but also decisively ended the life of a building which had once housed stars of American Jewish Orthodox rabbinic leadership.

The synagogue, which was founded in 1852, had not been used since 2007, when the then-diminished congregation moved to different space in the storied neighborhood. 

Originally a Baptist church, the synagogue was the seat of the first — and only — chief rabbi of New York City, Rabbi Jacob Joseph. When Joseph came from the Kovno region of Lithuania in 1888 he became the head of the synagogue and the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, which had 18 congregations as members. His attempts to unify the kosher meat industry were controversial.

“It was a powerful congregation that didn’t neccessarily get with the program,” said Elissa Sampson, a historical geographer who has long led tours of the Lower East Side, and who teaches at Cornell University. Sampson lives in the neighborhood just two blocks from where her mother grew up. “They weren’t about to shave, weren’t about to stop wearing hats or frock coats, were trying to put in a chief rabbi for the whole city on the European model.”

Nevertheless, his funeral in 1902 was one of the largest in New York, attended by some 50,000 people. But it was marred by violence when workers at a printing press housed in a building overlooking the procession came to the windows and loudly jeered. Soon, according to the New York Times account, they began throwing water, oil-soaked paper, blocks of wood and bits of iron out the windows, injuring many. More than 200 policemen arrived, waving their sticks and “shoving roughly against men and women alike,” according to the Times article.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, one of the few decisors of Jewish law to survive the Holocaust, began leading the congregation in 1952. He had begun his work while in the Kovno Ghetto and concentration camp, answering questions about human nature and God. He buried his work in the ground, retrieving it after the Holocaust. In 1959 he published them as “Questions and Responses from the Abyss.”

“It was a very important congregation, in part because it was seen as East European Jewry coming into its own,” Sampson said. Other famous synagogues were rooted in different Jewish communities and traditions; Shearith Israel, New York’s first synagogue, in the Sephardic community, and what is now the Angel Orensanz Center was formerly Ansche Chesed Congregation, founded primarily by German Jews.

Present Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum is Oshry’s son in law and has been in charge of the synagogue since 2003. He led efforts to secure funding to repair the dilapidated building, but failed to raise the needed moneys. Greenbaum could not be reached for comment.

At its heyday, 60 or 70 years ago, “there would be multiple minyanim and speeches given” at the synagogue on busy Sundays, said Joel Kaplan, who for many years ran the social services agency United Jewish Council of the East Side. “It was a focal point.”

Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem is, in fact, one of the oldest yeshivas in New York City. Founded in 1907, the Lower East Side campus has “one hundred and change” students from kindergarten to Grade 12, said Rabbi Ysochser Ginsberg, its principal. A second campus on Staten Island has dorms and more students. A girls school, Bais Yaakov of the East Side, is also located there, as is the volunteer ambulance service Hazalah and between 10 and a dozen active synagogues.

The now-destroyed synagogue building was very beautiful, said Sampson. “Fabulistic paintings” of the Holy Land hung on walls and near the ark containing the Torah scrolls, she said, depicting imaginary scenes of what the artists thought Jaffa and Rachel’s Tomb looked like. 

“I had been inside but not for many years, because at one point we were told it’s not safe” to be in the building, she told Haaretz. The structure suffered an electrical fire in 2001.

The derelict building had had vagrants and local youth try breaking in, according to news reports. The New York City Fire Department has not yet identified a suspected cause of the fire, which coincidentally occurred on Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday on which bonfires are often set.

Its destruction is “another physical reminder of the change in the neighborhood. We used to have thousands of people doing tashlich at the East River on Rosh Hashana, stretching a mile up,” the riverbank, said Jacob Goldman, proprietor of LoHo realty, and a local resident for over two decades, referring to the new year ritual in which bread is tossed into a moving body of water to represent the casting off of sins.

Next year a large residential development called Essex Crossing, complete with a Trader Joe’s supermarket, will open a block away from the burned-down synagogue. “When you have a whole historic synagogue burnt to the ground in a gentrifying neighborhood, it definitely has its own message of change,” Goldman said. “It’s one less thing we have left to compare the past to the present. Rabbi Oshry was such an important part of the neighborhood. And now all that went up in flames.”

Said Sampson, this was one of the few grand synagogues of the Lower East Side that contributed greatly to New York Jewish history. “The few that remain take on an extra importance in some strange sense,” she said. “They’re surrogates for a world that no longer remains but is almost palpable.”