Where Gangsters Prayed: Stepping Inside the Bialystoker Synagogue on the LES [PHOTOS]

Posted on: March 25th, 2016 at 9:16 am by
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One small town in present day Poland spawned the bialy, the namesake behind “Bialystok and Bloom,” and an historic synagogue for its descendants here on the Lower East Side. More than a century in prayer, the Bialystoker congregation on Willet Street (i.e. Bialystoker Place) – a city certified landmark – survives as a living testament to the changing times and its contrasting stasis. As the neighborhood around it becomes encrusted in greenbacks, time stands still at the boxy former church.

The structure was initially conceived and built as a Methodist Episcopal church in 1826. Stone for its construction was apparently mined from a quarry on nearby Pitt Street. The Bialystoker Synagoguefirst organized in 1865 – later purchased the building in 1905 (for $150,000) as a means of accommodating the influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in Bialystok.

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Let’s take a step inside. The layers of history here are palpable. It’s an olfactory rush, the scent of old rug, books, and aging paint. Even though the sanctuary received a full restoration in 1988, much of the interior is intact. For instance, some of the stained glass windows date back to 1901 while still under church tutelage, and the three-story Aron Kodesh was originally hand-carved and schmeared with 18K gold leafing in Bialystok.

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Photo: Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy

There on the second-floor above the bima (stage) is a relief of the Western Wall in the Old City. The mural is a cure for those praying to face spiritual east toward Jerusalem, as is the custom in Judaism. Needed because the building orientation as church now has congregants facing west.

However, the jewel of the Bialystoker is actually the ceiling. Its Sistine Chapel, if you will. Painted up above is a colorful rendition of the zodiac (aka “Mazalot”) that rings an open sky meant to evoke prayer. Twelve months of pictographs including the unfortunate placement of the traif lobster. This artwork arrived in 1930 as part of a Works Progress Administration project (FDR’s New Deal agency during the Depression) to “provide a sense of hope and inspiration to the community.”

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Against the odds, this Shul persists and carries a strong base of some three hundred families, all while some of its local brethren struggle. Indeed, there are only five operational synagogues left on the Lower East Side. Down from approximately five hundred at the turn of last century (that number includes schteibls).

Of particular note, though, is that the Bialystoker counts among its current and former congregants several crooks. In more recent years, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his old pal and political crony William Rapfogel are members. Both went down in flames last year thanks to political corruption scandals.

Controversial landlord Baruch Singer is also a congregant, and member of the board.

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Possibly its most infamous congregant, though, was Jewish mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. In fact, there is still a memorial plaque for Siegel on premise. But check out the name above his own, Max Siegel. That’s Bugsy’s father. Also note the two-month difference between deaths. “That’s honor among thieves,” LESJC Lori Weissman tells us. You see, his enemies thought it ill prudent to murder the man while still mourning the death of his father. So, they gave him another nine weeks to live.

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Bugsy Siegel in 1928 mugshot

Extras:

  • Local legend posits that the attic just off the women’s “gallery” was refuge for slaves as part of the Underground Railroad network.
  • The Bialystoker is one of only four early-19th century fieldstone religious buildings still standing from the late Federal period.
  • Landmark status achieved on April 19, 1966.

The Bialystoker Synagogue is open to the touring public. You can contact the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy to set up a private tour. Or, you can hit the Untapped Cities open tour on April 17. 

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