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Hope for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

An update on Friday’s big story

Batya Ungar-Sargon
March 11, 2013

In a surprising turn of events following the publication of a Tablet Magazine article Friday morning, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum–the rabbi of a century-and-a-half-old Lower East Side synagogue, a hardship application for which was recently submitted to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to allow for the building’s destruction–has requested that the commission suspend the Hardship Application for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol for the foreseeable future, at least until July, and possibly for good.

“We want to make sure to explore all options, including possibly changing our location,” Greenbaum said in a phone interview Monday morning. He was hopeful that a solution would be found.

Holly Kaye, of Friends of the Lower East Side, who has been fundraising for the building and advocating for its conservation for the past two decades, said that she is delighted by this turn of events. She said that her friendship with Greenbaum was reignited when she called him last Tuesday and asked him to meet. The meeting, at Kaye’s apartment, lasted for three hours. (Kaye said she left the door open, in accordance with Jewish law.) “I informed him of the size and power of the coalition against the building’s demolition,” she said in an interview Monday morning. “I told him he and his family were going to be very embarrassed by this. He opened his mind to other possibilities, and we reestablished our very effective working relationship based on good faith.”

Kaye said the Friends of the Lower East Side are “absolutely thrilled by this 180-degree turn around and that the rabbi has taken the responsible action,” the first step of which is to hire an objective engineer to reassess the conditions of the building and its stability. (There was controversy over Greenbaum’s 2006 independent report that deemed the building unsafe and with which Kaye’s architects disagreed.) Then, the search for the money will begin. “The rabbi will try to get in touch with those who reached out to him in the past.” Friends of the Lower East Side is committed to helping him find the right partner, be it a private or a public source. Kaye has some candidates in mind, but says it is still too early to name them. “If nothing comes along right away, we will draft an RFP”—request for proposals—“possibly for an Arts and Cultures program, or to some theaters. Everything is open right now.” The Jewish Conservancy was unavailable for comment.

When asked what made her reach out, Kaye said, “We had fifteen years of working together behind us, but in the mid-2000s, it had gotten so oppositional. I just thought, we had been friends. I was the only one in the group (of conservationists) who had such a relationship with him. And do you know, he was so relieved to hear from me.”

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.