By WYATT MARSHALL
Looking over the main sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue from the upper balcony, the warm glow of Edison bulbs in ornate golden chandeliers softly illuminates the sanctuary’s Moorish flourishes, faux marbling, and hues of deep red and brown. Look up, though, and celestial blues and yellows explode through a modernist rose window installed in 2010 and designed by the feminist artist Kiki Smith.
The juxtaposition is fitting for an Orthodox synagogue that is now a national historic landmark and aims to preserve the past while at the same time looking to the future. When the Eldridge Street Synagogue celebrates its 125th anniversary on Saturday, Nov. 13, there will be a reenactment of the 1886 laying of the cornerstone and a time capsule will be placed in the synagogue’s attic to be opened on the synagogue’s 250th anniversary in 2136.
“The number itself is magical,” said David Sitzer of the upcoming 125th anniversary. Sitzer has read the Torah on and off for the synagogue’s congregation, the K’hal Adath Jeshurun, since 1971. The congregation has not missed a Saturday service since the synagogue was completed in 1887, though it has met in the building’s modest basement since the building fell into disrepair and the upper levels were abandoned in the 1960s.
It took a 20-year, $18.5 million restoration effort, completed in 2007, to return the synagogue to its original beauty.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the crowning achievement for immigrant Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who called the Lower East Side home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the largest Jewish neighborhood in North America, with roughly 1.6 million Jewish residents, according to the Eldridge Street Museum, which maintains a museum on-site.
“The synagogue was built by people who had ‘made it’ in the 1860s and 70s,” said Hanna Griff-Sleven, the director of the family history center and cultural programs at the Eldridge Street Museum.
Eventually, though, those who had “made it” left the neighborhood for more affluent parts of town. After World War II, the synagogue’s congregation shrank as Lower East Side Jews moved to the suburbs and other parts of the city and tighter immigration laws prevented new immigrants from filling their places.
Since then, visitors to the synagogue walk through a neighborhood that is very different from the Lower East Side of a hundred years ago.
“Everybody thinks that it’s going to be the Lower East Side, circa 1910, when they come to the synagogue,” Griff-Sleven said. “We’re in the middle of Chinatown.”
“Smack in the middle,” as Sitzer puts it.
Approaching the synagogue, signs for Chinese businesses dominate the street. Two doors up from the synagogue is the Buddhist Association of New York. The neighborhood is a far cry from the tenement-lined streets of 100 years ago.
Griff-Sleven said she sees the neighborhood’s new population as an opportunity to integrate into a new community of immigrants who now call the Lower East Side home. Each June, the museum hosts a block party called “Egg Rolls and Egg Creams, a cross-cultural celebration of the Jewish and Chinese communities of the Lower East Side/Chinatown.”
The synagogue, as exemplified by the installation of Kiki Smith’s rose window, is a celebration of “the old and the new,” Griff-Sleven said. People no longer come to the Eldridge Street Synagogue just for its religious importance, but for its architectural and historical significance as well. On a recent Sunday, that included three young men, smartly dressed, who came inquiring about Smith’s window.
“Slowly the hipsters are finding us,” Griff-Sleven said with a smile.
Sitzer, who still reads the Torah for the K’hal Adath Jeshurun congregation on occasion, said that though the congregation may be small, the synagogue’s beauty, rich history, and a new demographic of worshippers should keep the congregation alive.
“It’s all young people that come,” Sitzer said. “It’s a group of people that are friends with each other, and the synagogue is beautiful.
“And,” he added, “services start a little later.”
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