Walking on the Lower East Side in dreary weather, I decided to take shelter inside the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a place I have long meant to visit. The gorgeous building was originally constructed back in 1887 and was the first synagogue to be established by Eastern European Jews in the United States. While for around five decades it was thronged with people, a dwindling congregation in the neighborhood resulted in the main hall that you see above being abandoned in the 1950s. An extensive restoration that started in the 1980s brought it back to its old world glory and it was reopened to the public in 2007, still operating as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, but also serving as a historical site as the Museum at Eldridge Street. The last of the restoration details was finally finished in 2010.
The synagogue looms quietly among the low tenements and bustling businesses on the edge of Chinatown. The stately architecture is a mix of Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish (especially in the interior), with rose windows and ornate details within and on its brick and terra cotta exterior. It was designed by two German Catholics, Peter and Francis William Herter, who went out to build other structures in the area as a sort of extension of the style of the synagogue, so if you keep an eye out on the Lower East Side you might see some tenement buildings with the Star of David or other synagogue-like touches. Overall, it feels like a very proud building, and it was built to be a testament to the hopes for the future of the immigrants in the new world and the strength of their beliefs.
There are guided tours, but I was there late in the day so I opted to wander around on my own. Much of the wood in the building has been their for over a hundred years, and you can see in the wear of the staircases, benches, and floors the phantom movement of the thousands who have been there before.
From the second story, which is the section for women during Orthodox services, you get the best view of the absolutely stunning stained glass window that was part of the restoration. It’s a celestial swirl of stars created by artist Kiki Smith with architect Deborah Gans, and seems to absorb the star details on the painted ceilings and shades of blue in the smaller stained glass and then project it all back in a way that’s strangely galactic and entrancing.
It’s hard to imagine how transporting it would have been to be a newly arrived immigrant in chaotic and grimy 19th century New York and to suddenly step into this soaring room of arches and swelling space rising to 50 feet at the highest dome, and gas-lit chandeliers hovering above their heads. Even today it feels like you are suddenly somewhere else in the quiet peace only interrupted by the creaking of the old floorboards.
I definitely recommend a visit to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, especially if you are looking for an escape from the cold winter days into warm place where you can stare into a cosmic portal spiraling above a 19th century relic of New York’s rich history.