Chinatown is my family’s go-to spot when we are at a loss as to what to do on any given Sunday. We hop on the Q – hop off at Canal – and explore and eat and explore some more. Which is why I can say with confidence that I have walked by the Eldridge Street Synagogue a bazillion times. But did my eyes cast a gaze or did I ever once consider the storied history of this landmark building that has been standing guard on Eldridge street for over 131 years!??? Nope. I cavalierly strolled on by, probably on the hunt for some kitschy store or a dim sum spot. Criminal really and a good life lesson to kick up the awareness factor whenever possible.
Now, thanks to the remarkable tour guide at this treasure of a museum and building, I am in the know and better for the experience. The building’s remarkable exterior and interior are concomitant with its rich, telling, and inspirational history. You need to grab your grab group and go on a tour too, but here are some highlights of what you will learn.
How’s this for a combination of factors to land this building on the block? The idea for the synagogue was conceived and implemented by Eastern European Jews. They hired German Christian architects (hence the Moorish revival, gothic roman design) and an Irish builder! Talk about the American Melting Pot! This diverse set of achievers erected this shrine to the Jewish religion in 10 months with the price tag of $90,000. To quote a line from the musical Hamilton “Immigrants – they get the job done.”
This beautiful statement building with its generous and soaring spaces was plopped right smack amongst a cavalcade of tenement buildings with families jam-packed into teensy tiny and none to sanitary spaces. (Visit the Tenement Museum while you are in the area – make a day of it – end with a meal in Chinatown). The synagogue went on to be a thriving place of worship and community with attendant colorful cultural stories that your tour guide will happily regale to you on your visit.
Things took a hard turn in 1924. The immigration restrictions that were laid down as law decimated the congregation. This forced the synagogue to shutter the upstairs area of worship and restrict the practice of worship to the basement. Those doors remained shuttered for 48 years!
The doors might still be shuttered or worse crumbled and GONE all together were it not for an NYU Professor writing a book on synagogues who cracked open the upstairs space in the name of research. Phew. He is more of a visionary than me and was able to look past the soot and the layers of pigeon excrement and see what must have been a remarkable space. Twenty years, 20 million dollars and a cast of thousands later, we now have what our tour guide declared is the most beautiful building on the lower east side and the grandest synagogue in all of the world. It is beautiful. Such a gift to take some time in this busy season called the holidays to sit quietly and appreciate it.
The upstairs space is no longer open to worship, but the basement area does still serve this purpose. The museum is open every day but Saturday – tours are given on the hour! I really hope you get our tour guide Bradley Shaw. His passion for this building comes through in every story and anecdote that he shares along the way. He brought the building to life for me and I will not pass by it blindly ever again. It is a treasure and it is a treasured experience to visit it. Grab Your Group and GO!
The Museum at Eldridge Street
12 Eldridge Street; New York, NY 10002
Hours: Sunday – Thursday: 10 am to 5 pm, Friday: 10 am to 3 pm, Saturday: Closed
Admission: Adults: $14, Students and Seniors: $10, Children 5-17: $8, Children under 5: Free
For more information, visit the official website here.