Rabbi Threatens Landmarked Shul
The leader of a historic Lower East Side synagogue wants to tear it down to build luxury condos
The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue on Norfolk Street, widely recognized as an irreplaceable part of the architectural and social fabric of the Jewish world of New York’s Lower East Side, and officially designated as a historic landmark in 1967, is now under threat of being torn down—by its own rabbi. Tablet has learned that the synagogue, which is home to the oldest community of Orthodox Russian Jews in America, was recently targeted by a so-called hardship application to be demolished, submitted by Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, the current rabbi of the congregation. Such an application is a necessary procedural step when tearing down a historic-landmarked building. According to the application, Greenbaum is seeking permission to demolish the historic building and replace it with a new structure consisting of “a replacement synagogue within a residential building.”
Elisabeth de Bourbon, director of communications at the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, confirms receipt of the request and says a public hearing will be scheduled once the application has been reviewed. While only 16 hardship applications have ever been reviewed by the commission, fully 13 of them have been granted.
Replete with flying buttresses and peaked windows, the historic Gothic Revival structure was built in 1850 and purchased by the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol congregation in 1885 for $45,000 (about $1.2 million today). In evaluating the building’s importance, the New York City Landmarks Commission found that “Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest, and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.” The Landmark Preservation Commission was further impressed by the building’s “austere simplicity.”
The century-and-a-half-old congregation housed in the building has a deep and significant history of its own. Its second rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, was the only chief rabbi in New York City’s history (the position was dissolved after six years). After World War II, the shul was led by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry. One of the few poskim to survive the Holocaust, Oshry spent the war in the Kovno Ghetto where he wrote responsa to Jewish legal questions that arose from the gothic circumstances of the ghettos and concentration camps, such as whether, according to Jewish law, a Jew could say Kaddish for a gentile woman who hid him from the Nazis (he may and must—it is a mitzvah), or whether a Jew could commit suicide in order to avoid witnessing his wife and children being killed (he may not), or whether it is considered desecration of the dead to perform a Caesarean on a Jewish woman who had been shot for disobeying the law against Jews procreating (it is not). Oshry buried the responsa in a tin can and retrieved them after the war, publishing them and winning the National Jewish Book Award. Oshry, who passed away in 2003, is remembered by those who knew him as something of a legend, equal parts heroic and witty; “He dug his own grave nine times,” one observer told me. Oshry used to jokingly refer to the ghetto dwellers as “dead men on vacation.”
It was Oshry who applied in 1967 for the landmark designation, which was awarded just two years after the Landmark Preservation Commission was established, making it one of the first buildings to receive the honor. The Landmark Preservation has its own politics, Esther Malka Boyarin, a doctoral candidate in geography who engages in advocacy for historic Lower East Side buildings, explained to me. According to Boyarin, the Landmark Preservation Commission “mainly landmarks brownstones, or Federal, Beaux Art, and Art Deco buildings,” like the New York Public Library—not buildings with “vernacular architecture”—the signature immigrant practice of mixing styles. The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is in the vernacular style. “You have to imagine what it was like for this Eastern European Jew to go to the Landmark Preservation Commission. The story goes, they told him about the urban renewal plans for the Lower East Side, and Oshry said, ‘How do I stop it?’ And they said, ‘If you get the building landmarked, they can’t destroy it.’ He was a real okshon,” or strong minded, Boyarin said affectionately.
It is hard to imagine how Oshry might respond to the news that the synagogue he saved after escaping the Holocaust was again being threatened with destruction—this time by his successor, who, in yet another twist to this painful story, happens to be his own son-in-law.
The congregation on Norfolk Street has shrunk significantly from its peak at the turn of the last century when it had over 1,400 members. In 1990, only 65 members were on the books. By 2006, member rolls showed only 35; in 2012—only 24. As the congregation dwindled, the building dilapidated. In 1997, a storm blew out the two-story front window. An electrical fire in 2001 caused significant damage. The roof became unstable. In 2007, Greenbaum closed the doors, and in 2011, the DOB declared a vacate order, according to Department of Building documents. Now chunks of plaster lie on the dusty and molding blue velvet cushions along the benches. One quarter of the gallery has collapsed into the sanctuary. The plaster is peeling back from the walls, exposing the brick exterior walls, and the floor of the sanctuary has begun to sink into the basement.
Yet there are people who suggest that many of the synagogue’s wounds may have been deliberately inflicted by its own management as part of a larger strategy to tear down the building. Holly Kaye, a planning and development consultant for community-based nonprofits, is the founder and executive director of The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, an organization that Kaye says has two main goals: providing support for the historic synagogues of the LES by bringing in professional expertise for funding and restoration efforts, and showcasing the neighborhood. The conservancy became “the secular face of the synagogue,” Kaye says. She remembers Rabbi Oshry fondly as a man who stood four-feet-nine-inches tall and always spoke to her in Yiddish, “unless we were discussing money; then his English was quite good.”
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