Next Steps for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on Norfolk

Posted on: December 28th, 2012 at 10:23 am by
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You’ve walked by it; you’ve stopped and marveled at its architecture and been dismayed at its disrepair. Or maybe you scooted past without even noticing this monstrously elegant and marvelous structure named Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.  And it’s been standing strong at 60 Norfolk Street (despite fires and floods) since 1850.

The historic structure received landmark status in 1967, and now, this very-hard-to-believe and disturbing news has washed over the Lower East Side.

The leadership of the synagogue itself has asked for permission to demolish the building, citing that it is 45,000 square-feet of potential residential real estate and a new space for the congregation to flourish. We understand the financial burden on their shoulders, but we know there is another way. Plucked from the application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission:

The building is over 160 years old ad significant funds are required to maintain the facility. As well as the storm [Hurricane Sandy], the Synagogue was the victim of a fire in 2001 that generated significant repair costs. These extraordinary costs, coupled with annual maintenance needs, have severely strained the dwindling Congregation’s limited resources. As a result, the Synagogue’s physical plant has suffered greatly. The damage from the storm and fire has never been fully repaired due to the lack of funds.

The Applicant’s proposal solves this problem. A new Synagogue will rise on the same location. The program will be designed to accommodate the Congregations’s religious needs and, most importantly, a permanent display of the Synagogues’s 160-year history. The residential building will be the funding source to rebuild and permanently maintain the Synagogue.

Boogie was told exclusively that Sacred Sites is getting involved and that demolition is by no means a done deal.

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From the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy:

This striking example of Gothic Revival architecture houses the oldest orthodox congregation of Russian Jews in the United States. The congregation was founded in 1852 and has occupied the building since 1885. Originally built in 1850 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, it was sold to a Methodist congregation in 1860.

Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York City, led the congregation from 1888 to 1902. Born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1848, he studied in the Volozhin yeshiva where he was known as “Rav Yaakov Charif” because of his sharp mind.

He arrived in New York in 1888 to unite the orthodox Ashkenazi community under a single leadership. He helped to create a European-style orthodox community in New York, with a rabbinic leadership and a rabbinic court.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003), an internationally recognized scholar, led the congregation for 50 years. His son-in-law, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, currently serves as Rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Through Rabbi Oshry’s remarkable efforts, it was designated a New York City landmark in 1967 after it was threatened with demolition. It was one of the first New York City synagogues to have received this honor and the first in Lower Manhattan.

Word broke over the summer that the synagogue, which has been closed now for four years, was soliciting funding from real estate developers. Their pleas went unanswered and so here we are.

Yet another Lower East Side landmark on the endangered list. Our [LES] history is being torn down at an alarming rate.

You want to do something about it? Me, too.

Contact any of these organizations. Tell them you want to help. Or if they’re not involved already, see if they want to partake in a LES-wide Save the Synagogue:

By the by, if you need some inspiration as to what this place could become – think the Angel Orensanz Center (originally, Anshe Chesed Synagogue; also formerly known as the Norfolk Street Congregation and Anshe Slonim Synagogue). A similar situation with a very happy ending; though this would be a tad different, allowing the congregation to remain year round.

Check out some pictures of the synagogue throughout the years:

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As for us, we will keep you updated as the situation progresses.

’til then…

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