Rabbi Threatens Landmarked Shul
The leader of a historic Lower East Side synagogue wants to tear it down to build luxury condos
Kaye has been involved in restoring and assisting the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol for the past 15 years. In 1998, when the storm blew out the main window, she organized a $5,000 grant from the Landmark Commission to pay for the window. In 2000, she managed to raise an additional $40,000 for emergency repairs from the state. She then applied for and received a $230,000 matching grant from the Parks and Recreation Department to restore the roof in a way consistent with preservation methodology. In need of a donor to match the funds to use them, she petitioned for the shul to become a National Trust, which got her national recognition and, most crucially, the recognition of a Washington philanthropist named Milton Gottesman. When Gottesman flew out to see the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Kaye recalls the “A-ha moment”—“I was standing in the shul with Gottesman, Rabbi Oshry, the rabbi’s son, and his son-in-law Greenbaum, when Gottesman asked us, ‘Well, if I give you the money to restore it, will there be a congregation here in five years?’ ”
It was then that Kaye began to think of the building as separate, and separable, from the dwindling congregation it housed. “We said the congregation could really fit into the beit midrash in the basement. And suddenly, we were brainstorming about what could be made out of the sanctuary.” They came up with a plan: a multi-use cultural space that would occupy the sanctuary and the balcony fully with museum-like exhibits and an educational curriculum.
In the middle of the planning process, Oshry passed away, and his son-in-law became the rabbi of the congregation. Greenbaum had married Oshry’s youngest daughter. “He was 50 when he had my wife,” Greenbaum told me. “By the time we got married, he was not a young man. My wife, she wanted to help out, and he needed someone also to help him. It was an honor for me—he was a very special man. A very special man,” Greenbaum repeated, with a soft smile. By his own account, Greenbaum ended up spending most Shabbats with his in-laws and became involved with the shul.
But how did Greenbaum, a son-in-law, come to be the rabbi, even though Oshry has sons? There are rumors that Oshry’s sons didn’t want a shul on the Lower East Side with a dwindling membership. There are also rumors that the surviving members of the congregation specifically asked for Greenbaum, due to his involvement, and then there are other rumors that hold it was Oshry’s deathbed wish that Greenbaum take the torch. “Rabbi Oshry thought, he is the one,” said Rabbi Aron Mendel, a board member of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. “He was looking for someone who was a go-getter, who would get the money for the shul. You have to understand, Greenbaum was so involved. The shul was his life.”
Kaye doesn’t entirely dispute Mendel’s assessment. “Rabbi Greenbaum seemed to have a lot of energy,” Kaye said, “and at first we were going along in the same effective way.” Kaye managed to get another grant from a Washington Heights woman named Seigelbaum who left them $250,000 in her will, part of a philanthropic gesture to several LES shuls. Then in 2005 she got New York City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Borough President’s office to visit and to allocate another $750,000. With the original $230,000, she was now up to $1.25 million. Then she got another $100,000 from the insurance company. Things were looking good.
But just as the ledgers seemed to be rebalancing, Kaye said, things began to change. “Around 2006 to 2007, the rabbi decided to take an independent path without asking our advice as partners,” Kaye said. “He suddenly started to shop around the building.” Kaye said he held up their ability to receive the money they had raised. In order to collect the city money, Greenbaum had to create a secular nonprofit organization. “This process can take as little as a week in emergency circumstances,” Kaye said. “It took him two years.” By then it was 2008, and due to the fiscal crisis, all unspent state funds were withdrawn, and the synagogue lost the $750,000, according to both Kaye and Greenbaum. Greenbaum then refused the $230,000 matching grant. “Then he stopped doing any routine maintenance: no gutter cleaning, no boiler maintenance,” Kaye related. “That seriously undermined the structure.” Greenbaum disagreed: “Totally untrue,” he said. “We tried to clean it, even after we were closed, at least for a couple of years. We cleaned the gutters, whatever we could. Certainly until 2009, we were still maintaining with the upkeep.” In 2006, Greenbaum produced an engineering report declaring the building unsafe, even though Kaye’s independent report claimed most of the shul to be fine. “He seemed to want to close the building,” Kaye said.
But Greenbaum tells a very different story about the past seven years. “Do you know how long it takes the IRS to approve a new nonprofit, after 9/11?” he asked, in response to what Kaye called his delay tactics. “Yes, I refused the money. It was a matching grant. I had nothing to match it with,” he said to the second accusation. “In 2007, I pushed away developers because I was working with the conservancy. I only refused money I couldn’t use.”
Greenbaum said that the Jewish Conservancy paid $215,000 for an architectural firm to assess the restoration costs. They came up with a figure: $3 million. “So what am I going to do with $230,000?” Greenbaum asked. “What do you think, I woke up—boom!—let’s demolish? You think it didn’t hurt me to do this? It hurt me. It kills me that this should happen on my watch. I finally decided, if I can’t have Beis Medrish Hagudl in that building,” Greenbaum said, pronouncing the name in the Yiddish, “at least we should have Beis Medrish Hagudl. People should know, there’s a shul on Norfolk Street.”
Greenbaum said that his plan is to demolish the historic synagogue building and then sell the plot to a developer who would create a space and a trust for a kollel of 15 to 20 people, to be named “Kollel Jacob Joseph” after the chief rabbi. (Greenbaum did not disclose the prospective membership of his proposed kollel to me during our interview.) When asked if he would consider a coalition with other Jewish organizations, he said with a smile, “It depends who are the Machatonim,” referring to a special in-law family relationship. “Someone says, I want to give you $5 million, let’s sit down and talk! But I don’t want to go here, to go there, to this rich guy, that rich guy, and then we start all over again in three years.”
Why would anyone want to tear down a historic house of worship? There is Greenbaum’s stated interest in starting a kollel to be funded in perpetuity by a wealthy real-estate developer. Other interpretations on the Lower East Side range from the cynical to the very, very cynical. Joyce Mendelsohn, author of The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited and an active member of Friends of the Lower East Side, an advocacy group dedicated to “preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in lower Manhattan,” sees a parallel in other histories in the area. Mendelsohn’s passion for the LES comes from being the granddaughter of immigrants who “came to the Lower East Side and never left,” she said. She is worried about losing the links to the past that historic buildings represent. “They are erasing memories, in exchange for luxury condos,” she said.
Avi Shilon pens a masterful biography of the man who irrevocably bound Israel to the Diaspora and the Holocaust