Rabbi Threatens Landmarked Shul
The leader of a historic Lower East Side synagogue wants to tear it down to build luxury condos
Mendelsohn relayed the disheartening tale of another historic shul in the neighborhood, the First Roumanian-American Synagogue on Rivington Street, whose Rabbi Spiegel was reportedly offered a grant for repairs as early as 1997; “He said, ‘I’m not going to let the government tell me what to do with my building,’ ” Mendelsohn said. Though the matter is still disputed, Spiegel may have refused a later grant of $230,000, which was for roof repairs, and then in 2006, the roof collapsed, and the building was promptly demolished.
Kaye worked on the First Roumanian-American Synagogue through the Jewish Conservancy and supplied the final, chilling detail: “A week after it was demolished, we saw it on a Brooklyn website. It was listed for $15 million. The community was so upset. It gave a very different picture of what was going on.”
But why now, when the Lower East Side has been gentrifying for the past 15 years or more? For starters, a new wave of gentrification is likely to hit the neighborhood, spurred by the development of the largest tract of city-owned land south of 96th Street in Manhattan. “After 45 years of stalling, the Seward Park Urban Renewal (SPURA) is finally going through,” Kaye said. For years, the city equivocated on the SPURA site, which consists of five city-owned plots, unsure of the LES’s readiness for mixed-income housing. But in October, the city formally approved the SPURA development. The five plots in question are adjacent to the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, making the property even more attractive to developers than it was before.
“SPURA will greatly change the neighborhood,” said Sofia Lewitt, a resident of the Lower East Side and daughter of famous Jewish artist Sol Lewitt. The 29-year-old Lewitt co-owns the Essex Street building she lives in and is engaged in local activist and advocacy groups. “There has been and will continue to be a demographic shift in this neighborhood,” she said. “You have things like Grumpy’s Coffee replacing establishments like Weinfeld’s skullcap manufacturers and Gertel’s Bakery. It’s hard to see all that Jewish identity go.”
But she argues it doesn’t have to go. Lewitt was upset by the hardship application, which she said claimed that there was “no religious community” in the area. “I’m not the most religious,” she said, “but I am a Jew.” Indeed, Lewitt got involved with trying to save the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol after she met the director of Chabad of the Lower East Side, Rabbi Yisroel Stone, on the street one Shabbat. “He says Shabbat Shalom to everyone he sees, and the first person who says it back, he stops and talks to you,” she said. The Chabad has no space of their own—they pray at the Blue Moon Hotel—and Lewitt became active in their search for a house of worship, researching buildings in the area. That’s how she learned about the empty shul on Norfolk Street. “We have high hopes to put Rabbi Stone there,” she said, calling him “very charismatic.” Lewitt believes that if the money could be found, a coalition could be formed that would enable Chabad to use the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. “I think Rabbi Stone is the future of the Lower East Side,” she said.
Stone declined to speak about the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol for what he called “political reasons,” but he said he has a thriving and growing community with 35 regular members every Shabbat. He also said that, “not having a space is holding us back. If it’s a question of money, any money can be found if you look for it.”
Greenbaum said that he knows Stone is doing good work, and he would be happy to lend him the space when he needs it. His only stipulation is that the space should be used for Orthodox functions, or other “mechubedike”—respectable—purposes.
“There’s no congregation,” I heard over and over from restoration advocates for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. But there is still a board, whose members appear to largely believe what Greenbaum believes. “The congregation is more important than the building as it is right now,” said Pinchas Jungreiss, a resident of the Lower East Side and a member of the board of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. “The building is decaying. They tried to raise the money and they couldn’t. You’re talking hypothetical, I’m talking reality!” he admonished me when I tried to ask about donors and restoration plans.
The building certainly needs a lot of work. If it wasn’t unsafe when Greenbaum declared it so (he declined to provide me with the document he submitted), it certainly is unsafe now. But despite the decay and mess inside, the light that comes through the broken window (through which birds fly in and die on the synagogue’s floor) is magnificent. The Gothic Revival architecture, vernacularized though it may be, invokes the sublime heights to which prayers aspire.
The conflict has not diminished a sense of respect on both sides and for both sides. Greenbaum speaks of the preservationists with respect, notwithstanding accusations that he is trying to profit from the destruction of a historic shul. The preservationists who know Greenbaum speak of him affectionately, even when accusing him of misconduct. After I spoke to Kaye and Mendelsohn, Laurie Tobias Cohen, the executive director of the Jewish Conservancy, was told by those “on high” not to speak about the building. Then I got a call from Greenbaum. He had just come from a two-hour meeting with Kaye, in which withdrawing or suspending the application for demolition and hardship was put on the table. Moving the kollel to Brooklyn was suddenly an option, he seemed to be suggesting.
Preserving a historic synagogue in the cradle of Jewish Manhattan while Greenbaum and his kollel relocate to Brooklyn sounds like the kind of solution that all sides might be able to profitably agree on.
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