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Video: The 16th Street Synagogue Says Goodbye

The evicted congregation gathers in its original location one last time

Adam Chandler
Tracy Levy
January 24, 2013
The empty arc at the 16th Street Synagogue.(Tracy Levy)
The empty arc at the 16th Street Synagogue.(Tracy Levy)

One story we’ve been following over the past few weeks has been the ongoing saga with the 16th Street Synagogue. About ten years ago, the National Council of Young Israel sold the building containing the small Orthodox shul, which had been operating in the same space since 1945, to a real estate developer.

At the time, it seemed like a good deal–in theory, the shul would get to stay, the council would get money from the sale, and the real estate developer would have the upper floors of a prime Chelsea property. But after a fallout between the two parties and years of legal wrangling, this outcome was not meant to be and the 16th Street Synagogue was ordered to be evicted following a few last-ditch legal efforts.

Yesterday, we trekked down to the site as the congregants gathered to daven at one last mincha service. Emotions were high, it was a tearful gathering marked simultaneously by the sound of prayer and the clatter of workers breaking down the shul’s shelves and packing up its fixtures. Congregants spoke of their history at the shul including decades of worship and celebration. A few of the members had left the neighborhood, but kept coming despite the distance; others who had moved farther away returned to pay tribute.

Following the service, each of the shul’s ten Torah scrolls was covered with a tallit and handed to some of the older congregants. The ten men and the rest of the crowd exited the shul for the last time and marched out into the windy, 16-degree winter day, reciting a chapter from Psalms on their way out. The funereal phalanx of scrolls went down Fifth Avenue to the confusion of many mid-day passersby and were placed in a transport to be delivered to a location for safekeeping. The congregation then dispersed.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

Tracy Levy is a freelance writer, producer, and multimedia journalist living in New York City. Her Twitter feed is @TrayLev.