Friday, August 8, 2008

USA: Wrecking Ball Closer for NYC’s Congregation Meseritz Synagogue Documented by ISJM

USA: Wrecking Ball Closer for Century-Old Congregation Meseritz Synagogue in NYC, Documented by ISJM

Facade photos by Samuel D. Gruber / ISJM

(ISJM) The on-again and off-again plans to demolish the tiny and lovely Congregation Meseritz Synagogue (Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritz) at 415 East 6th Street on New York’s Lower East Side seem to be moving ahead again. An article in The Villager this week details the small congregation’s plan to demolish the 1908 building in order to develop the narrow site for a 6-story residential building. It seems for the developer some members of the congregation, one hundred years of this charming little building are quite enough.

The developer is 23-year-old Joshua Kushner, whose family owns the New York Observer newspaper. Kushner will pay the congregation $725,000 to create ten apartments on the top four floors of an entirely new building, and will cede space for a new synagogue on the lowest levels. Critics of the plan have said that a similar (but more costly) arrangement could be done made which would save the shul’s Neo-classical façade, renovate the basement level beth-midrash (which is used daily for prayer) and restore the sanctuary, while allowing new apartments to built above, and slight set back form the façade. Because the building is not listed as a NYC Landmark, there will be few opportunities for project review. Some local residents who pray at the synagogue have claimed that membership has been denied to newcomers, allowing a small group of older members to determine the fate of the building. Though proponents argue that the building must be sacrificed to save the congregation, critics say without the old building the small congregration may done dwindle away.
Local preservationists hope that broader support from the New York Jewish community might be found to help the struggling congregation so they will not have to sacrifice their building. If there is ever to be such financial support, now is surely the time it is needed. This building should be saved.

As early as 1978 the small shul was singled out as a “gem” by Gerald R. Wolfe in his now-classic book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side. Wolfe wrote “Another small shul with a most attractive interior is the little-used Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritch synagogue (Community of Israel of the People of Meseritch) on East 6th Street. The unusually narrow building has balconies which extend almost to the middle of the sanctuary, and through the intervening space, broad rays of light from two overhead skylights seem to focus on the Ark and on a large stained glass panel above it. The soft-yellow-colored panes of the two-story-high window are crowned by an enormous Mogen David [Star of David] of red glass which seems to dominate the entire room.

Sanctuary photos by Vincent Giordano /ISJM 

 In the thirty years since, many Lower East Side Congregations, especially those in small synagogues like this, have closed their doors. Congregation Meseritz hung on, led by its rabbi, Pesach Ackerman. But these days with something of a Jewish cultural resurgence on the Lower East Side, a few synagogues are showing new life. The small Stanton Street Shul’s congregation is looking to the future and has embarked on a restoration program. Other congregations, like the small Romaniote Kahilla Kedosha Janina, have faced the likelihood of loosing their historic religious identity, and have organized to preserve it in the form of a museum and a restored sanctuary – even if that may not serve future generations of Greek Jews. On Clinton Street, the actively Orthodox Hasan Sofer synagogue has been entirely refurbished – with much of its historic fabric left intact. The Orthodox Bialystoker Synagogue, restored in the 1990s, is a dynamic center of Jewish life. And of course, the 20-year restoration of the Elbridge Street Synagogue – where a tiny minyan still meets – has been completed.

 Fearing demolition of Congregation Meseritz in 2006, ISJM commissioned photographer Vincent Giordano to photograph the interior. Rabbi Ackerman cooperated with this documentation project. 

According to New York researcher (and celebrated tour guide) Justin Ferante: 
 “Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritz is named for the town of Meseritz, Prussia (now Poland) – a well-known center of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe. Meseritz was the home to Dov Ber of Meseritz, who was known as the “Meseritzer Maggid.” (A maggid is a wandering Jewish preacher.) Dov Ber was the primary disciple of Israel ben Eliezer (known as the Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Chassidic Judaism. This Orthodox Jewish congregation was established in 1888 as Eduth Ados L'Israel Anshei Meserich – “Witness to Israel – Meseritz” (Anglicized spellings and translations vary somewhat.) Built by a poor but aspiring Jewish congregation, the building is located on a narrow mid-block New York City lot – a style often known as a “tenement synagogue” or “tenement shul.” Even with these restrictions, the congregation created an impressive structure.

As a neoclassical “tenement synagogue” the Meseritz Synagogue is an extremely rare (but excellent) survivor of its type. Today, it is probably the only operative neoclassical “tenement synagogue” in the Lower East Side. Nearly all of the others have been demolished. The architect of record for the Meseritz Synagogue was Herman Horenburger. An architectural/spiritual “mate” of Congregation Meseritz was Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn at 242 East 7th Street (Between Avenues C and D), survives today as an apartment house, converted in 1986. Likewise, certain details of the recently demolished B’nai Rappaport Anshe Rembrava Synagogue at 207 East 7th Street resembled Congregation Meseritz. B’nai Rappaport Anshe Rembrava is where the new East 7th Street Baptist Church was recently constructed).

The historic interior of the Meseritz Synagogue is remarkably intact. Inside, the construction materials are typical of working-class buildings of the era: plaster walls, pressed tin ceilings, and polychrome “nickel” tile floors. Two skylights provide natural light, which is enhanced by several simple, but handsome stained glass windows. The original women’s gallery remains intact.

The sanctuary is dominated by the original two-story Ark, with High Victorian Gothic details mingled with neo-classical forms – plus a few Eastern European features such as miniature onion domes…Similar details are reflected in other sanctuary furnishings such as the pews.

There are a few other examples of Gothic style having been intentionally used in synagogue design. The most noted perhaps was the original Anshe Chesed at 172 Norfolk Street. The noted architect, Alexander Saeltzer, was strongly influenced by Germany’s Cologne Cathedral. Today, the former Anshe Chesed houses the Angel Orensanz Foundation – an artist’s studio, gallery, and performance space.

In the case of Congregation Meseritz, a major reason for Gothic accouterments in the main sanctuary probably lies in something more practical. Most of the local woodworkers were German Christians and using standard church furnishings was probably less expensive. Likewise, since so many of the earlier synagogues have the Lower East Side had formerly been Christian churches, the use of Gothic-styled furnishings in synagogues had become relatively acceptable.”

Beth Midrash photos by Vincent Giordano / ISJM

In the half-basement level is the Beth Midrash (study house), also used as a daily synagogue. It is in this space the prayers of the congregation are heard on a regular basis, and it is also where the Rabbi and members of the congregation are often likely to be found.


Ruth said...

It's instructive to read about situations like this in the United States, which often go unnoticed, whereas similar cases in Europe sometimes become front page news and object of loud indignation. Granted, the surviving synagogues in Europe survived something much more sinister and tragic than the American urban flight and demographic change and thus are imbued with a special significance. But still, many parallels are there -- the recent controversy over development plans for Budapest's 7th District, for example, comes to mind.

MiMi said...


Have you heard of the restoration of the Mogen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut. For years I passed by it and it was merely a shell due to its destruction during the civil war. But, finally, the Lebanese government's restoration of areas destroyed during the civil war has come to that area of the city and it is being restored. Beautiful! I'm going in the late fall and will send pictures.