Community members and congregation leadership are butting heads over whether, and how, to save a cherished LES landmark
The Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue (BHH) on the Lower East Side is in obvious ruin. The facade is crumbling, windows have been blown out and behind the barbed wire fence, trash and leaves have been accumulating for years.
The synagogue was closed down five years ago by Rabbi Mandl Greenbaum when it was deemed no longer habitable, and has suffered under the strain of significant natural disasters and serious neglect.
As the first Eastern European synagogue in America, BHH was once the epicenter of the vibrant immigrant Jewish community.
While groups often attempt to gain landmark status for buildings with important historical ties, BHH already has landmark status as of 1967 – but some, including the congregation’s leadership, want out.
This past winter, the heads of the congregation, including Rabbi Greenbaum, filed an application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) seeking to demolish the landmark and erect in its place a mixed-use building with residential space.
In the application, they stated they could not amass the necessary funds to restore the building.
“There are simply no private or public entities that are able to commit the needed resources and the Congregation simply can no longer do it alone,” notes the application. “Calamities that can strike any building have twice victimized the Synagogue. The cost of renovation is now in the millions.”
The application lays out plans to build a mixed-use building, while maintaining historical and religious qualities of the landmark and continue serving the community in a meaningful way.
“The residential portion of the development would generate the needed funds to construct the new Synagogue in a manner that reflects its landmark qualities,” the application explains.
Rabbi Greenbaum told the Lo-Down blog in an interview he had done everything in his power to save the landmark.
For community members trying to preserve the synagogue, the demolition is unacceptable. Groups like Friends of the Lower East Side say they do not want to see BHH razed to make room for luxury condos. The organization alleges Rabbi Greenbaum has refused funding and allowed the synagogue to fall into disrepair.
Rabbi Ben Zion-Saydman is one community member with close personal ties to the synagogue. His great grandfather, Ben-Zion Meltsner, came to America from Lithuania in 1871 and settled on the Lower East Side. He became affiliated with BHH along with much of his extended family. Rabbi Zion-Saydman’s great grandfather, a leader in the immigrant Jewish community, was president of BHH in 1900.
Rabbi Zion-Saydman, who grew up in California, visited New York City in high school and stumbled upon the synagogue.
“As a rabbi I don’t believe in coincidence,” he explained. “At that point, I had no idea the old shul still existed. It was beshert — meant to be. I joined the synagogue that year and completed the circle.”
The rabbi said the grassroots effort by individuals and organizations to save the synagogue has galvanized the community in support of the cause. Many reached out to him to offer their personal historical ties to the synagogue and express their horror that a significant landmark would be transformed into condos, of which they believe the city already has enough, he explained.
“BHH is not like any other building,” said the rabbi. “It is a symbol of the American Jewish experience. It is us.”
However, he does not see the synagogue going anywhere anytime soon. Rabbi Zion-Saydman said there is a plan in place for the synagogue to continue serving its community though he is unable to divulge the details.
“[BHH] represents 163 years of the American Jewish experience and is a vital part of our history and a direct connection to the life of our ancestors in the Old Country,” he said. “We are an ancient people who understand and respect history. To us, BHH is an important link in the chain that connects us all the way back to Sinai.”
The hearing by the LPC on the application will take place at the end of March.
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