In 1990, John and Esther Grillo were in search of a home that could double as a workspace for John’s darkroom and Esther’s larger-than-life sculptures . One snowy day on a drive through the Rockaways, they found what used to be Ohab Zedek, a synagogue. The stained-glass windows had been shattered and the walls had been defaced with swastikas. John hopped the fence, knocked on the door, met the caretaker, and learned that the building was slated to be demolished.
“The place smelled like beer,” John said, noting that the caretaker had been using the defunct shul to store hundreds of bottles that he had collected for the nickel refund. But the stench and the damage didn’t stop the couple. The Grillos bought the temple.
Little did they know that converting a synagogue into a secular home would prove as time-consuming as obtaining rabbinical ordination. First, they had to get the religious exemption removed from the building, pay commercial rates for some time, and then legally change the property into a residence, all under the scrutiny of endless inspectors and the Queens Department of Buildings.
“We saw this with artists’ eyes,” Esther said, recounting the long days they spent working their for-pay jobs just to sink all their earnings into the synagogue. She recalled their daily trips to a distant Home Depot, the conversion of the women’s balcony into a bedroom and an office, the summer spent restoring the broken stained-glass windows and welding the frames, and the endless scraping of the plastered, primed, and painted walls that were chipping away and covered in mold.
“It wasn’t made to live in,” John said, looking at the building’s half dozen Star of David windows, which they have maintained. Every few years, the couple finds themselves working on these windows to keep the weather out.
In living there, however, they have become archaeologists of their home. John educated himself on the three congregations that once davened where his kitchen now stands. And he constantly scours the internet for old photographs of his home’s interior, but to no avail. Esther, who fondly recalls her childhood in Bensonhurst, when religious Jews would elect her the Shabbos goy, never realized that she would become caretaker of a shul one day.
Although they’re not Jewish, the Grillos have worked hard to keep their home looking like a synagogue. They have preserved most of the enormous stained-glass windows. They also house a collection of the temple’s abandoned artifacts: yarmulkes, plaques, furniture, and a wooden yad, the pointer the congregation had used to read the Torah. (They once had a number of historical documents, such as photographs of the rabbi, but those were lost during Hurricane Sandy.)
While the roles of caretaker and historian suit them nicely, the Grillos never expected to play receptionist to some of the building’s past congregants.
“In the beginning,” John said, “there were always people ringing the door because they got bar mitzvahed there. They’d just show up. People don’t realize that it’s no longer a synagogue.”
The Grillos are not alone. In Ellen Levitt’s The Lost Synagogues trilogy, she details almost 300 now-defunct temples throughout New York City. Some have been turned into prisons, funeral parlors, or yoga studios; others have become churches or mosques. But many have been converted into private homes, housing hundreds of residents around the boroughs.
Living in a former synagogue is mainly a Lower East Side phenomenon. At the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, Jewish immigrants made the neighborhood home. Consequently, many small synagogues for the various immigrant groups were erected. And because the Landmarks Preservation Commission marked a number of these shuls as unalterable, those facades had to stay. What else was there to do with tenement-style buildings that could not be demolished or have their exteriors changed? The logical alternative was to convert the insides into condos, especially in a city where real estate prices are always on the rise.
And, quite often, the deeds of these one-time shuls on the Lower East Side transferred into artists’ hands. For nearly half a century, an artist couple paid rent month-to-month to live in a former Romanian synagogue at 70 Hester Street. (In 2013, the couple had to move out and the property was put on the market for nearly $9 million.) Similarly, painters Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof not only shared a marriage and a genre—both were abstract expressionists—they also lived for decades in back-to-back one-time synagogues on Eldridge and Forsythe, respectively.
While passing the keys of a former house of worship to an artist might seem avant-garde, what the board members of the Anshei Meseritch Synagogue, also on the Lower East Side, decided to do when facing extinction could also be considered experimental. A century after it was built, the building had fallen into disrepair and the congregation had shrunk dramatically; the rabbi had to stand on the corner to gather a minyan. So in 2013, the congregants struck a deal with East River Partners, a real estate development firm, that would see three luxury condos built into the upper levels of the building. The apartments would gain all the stained glass and the synagogue space would shrink significantly, but at the end of the day, the congregation would survive.
“A lot of people opposed the new plan,” said Lesley Sussman, a board member of Anshei Meseritch, who was pained to see his century-old synagogue altered. “But because the rabbi wanted it, I quietly supported the decision.”
Like the Grillos’ repurposing project, it took years for ERP and Anshei Meseritch’s decision-makers to agree upon the logistics—and even more time to receive city approval for all the cosmetics. But in the end, a nearly lost congregation got to stay in its synagogue, as the shul will remain active with the support of residential annuities from the condos.
David Trencher had been combing Greenwich Village for an apartment a few years ago, but he had no luck. So he decided to expand his search to all of Lower Manhattan, which is when he found an available unit at an eerily familiar address on East 7th Street—an address that had been a part of his family story for a century.
Joined by his father, Hal, he went to look at the apartment across town. The apartment was one of five built inside a repurposed Hungarian synagogue, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ugarn. It was the synagogue that David Trencher’s great-grandfather and great-great grandmother attended around WWI. The Hungarian temple had been directly across the street from David’s great-grandfather’s apartment.
For three decades, two or three times each year, Hal Trencher would walk East 7th Street, between the avenues where his Hungarian grandfather had lived. “I wanted to be where he was,” he told me, “where my grandfather was a young man.”
When the Trenchers arrived in 2014, there was already a bidder in place. But then, the deal fell through and the younger Trencher swooped in to buy it.
“It was the only apartment we looked at on the East Side,” David Trencher said. “My wife had never even been to the neighborhood. I knew what it meant to my family … [which] made it easy to move into a neighborhood we weren’t familiar with.”
Both Hal and David Trencher, in separate interviews, described the move exactly the same way: “a complete circle.”
“From 100 years ago to today, [our family] has gone from attending the synagogue to living in the synagogue,” David said. “There’s a sense of peace and historical relevance in that. You consider what element is coincidence and what element is of a higher power.”
While there isn’t much to the synagogue beyond the façade of the building, which is landmarked and thus protected, David Trencher notes that the apartment across the street and the exterior of his building remind him every day that he lives in his great-grandfather’s synagogue. And when he did renovations in the bathroom and had the walls torn down, he discovered a section of a chipped mural that had once been a part of his great-grandfather’s house of worship.
While most residents of former synagogues—including Jews—reconstruct the interior for the ease of modernity and daily life, the Grillos have kept the Jewishness of their home alive. Even though they have covered the name of the synagogue on the façade and removed a few Stars of David from the interior, as Esther Grillo points out, “we still have more stars than any of our Jewish friends.” (She is also using some of the removed stars in a forthcoming sculpture that pays homage to a lost amusement park in the area.)
One thing that hasn’t changed about the former Ohab Zedek is how the temple is perceived by some members of the community. When the Grillos moved in, there was a man who swept in front of their home because he still considered it a mitzvah, even though they explained to him that the synagogue was no more. And now, each afternoon, at about the same time, a woman kneels on the Grillos’ front steps and then sits across the street for the better part of an hour.
The Grillos accept these visits graciously. One thing that troubles them, however, is whenever there is an anti-Semitic threat. While they’d never be targeted if their name were on a door buzzer, they’ve considered the consequences because their home still looks like a synagogue. Whenever there is a threat, they notice police cars stationed out in front of the functioning synagogue that happens to be a neighbor their home. “We would be a target,” John Grillo said, “if people think [our home is] a temple.”
On the day I visited the Grillos’ home, they showed me a note written on a torn envelope. The person who wrote it claimed to be the grandson of the synagogue’s former caretaker. He wanted to visit. I called the phone number written at the bottom.
Barry Gelman, the grandson of the caretaker (the one prior to the bottle collector), had indeed written the note. He is the current rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogue in Houston and had returned to New York for a tour of nostalgia. He shared his memories of the synagogue’s basement “with its modest furnishings” (which is now Esther Grillo’s sculptor’s studio) and of the aravah for the sukkah that his grandfather grew on the side of the building (now a patch where the Grillos grow tomatoes).
“He took a lot of pride in taking care of the shul,” Gelman said of his grandfather. “I’m happy the synagogue’s still there. I’m happy there’s a couple still there preserving the building.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.