This site has been chosen as a benchmark because it is an example of the outward architectural expression of the Jewish faith that exists here in New York City. It is a combination of architectural styles, and includes a proliferation of ornament and symbolism relating to the beliefs and rituals of Judaism. In addition, the building is part of an ongoing restoration project, which is, due to its slow pace, easy to observe. Perhaps most importantly, Eldridge Street synagogue, with its intact, if dusty, original interior is one of those rare places where visitors can almost feel the past coming to life.
The official name of Eldridge Street Synagogue is K'hal Adath Jeshurun with Anshe Lubtz, which is the name of the congregation and clearly reflects the identity of this congregation as a merger of two religious groups. The building was constructed in 1887 and is the first synagogue constructed in the United States by Eastern European Jews. Eastern European immigrants came in a later wave of immigration than earlier German Jews or much earlier Sephardic Jews. This synagogue was built in part to assert the importance of this Orthodox congregation in opposition to the more liberal German Jewish population which bad preceded them. The feeling was that German Jews had become to Americanized and assimilated and had, therefore, given up many of their traditional Jewish practices in favor of the more liberal reform movement. The construction of Eldridge Street Synagogue was a statement on the part of its congregation that one does not need to abandon strict Judaism to su~ in America. The opulence and ornament of the synagogue compare to German Jewish/Reform synagogues of the same period. The architect of the building was the German firm of Herter Brothers, which went on to build numerous Lower East Side tenement buildings. This was not the first synagogue for this congregation, which was housed in earlier buildings prior to raising the capital for the construction of their own building.
Eldridge Street Synagogue is located on the block bounded by Eldridge Street on the west, Canal Street on the north, Allen Street on the east and Division Street on the south. The immediate neighborhood is a sheltered enclave, set off from the surrounding bustle in part by the Manhattan Bridge, which sits just above it. The building fills most of its lot, which is approximately 60 feet wide by 87 feet deep, but is set apart from its neighbors by narrow areaways. This block is part of the densely packed Lower East Side which is a neighborhood known for role as a point of first contact for immigrants throughout the last two centuries, a role that continues to this day.
The facade of the building is highly ornamented in a combination of the Moorish Gothic and Romanesque styles. It is constructed of brick and terra cotta with large stained glass windows. The fašade is divided into three bays representing the three patriarchs of Judaism (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the central one of which is wider. The fašade also features four doors, representing the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) and a rose window with twelve interlocking sections, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The two center doors of the fašade were for male worshippers only. Women entered through the two side doors.
The most notable features of the fašade are the gothic-inspired rose window; the Moorish horseshoe arches with dogtooth molding which top windows and doorways across the facade and the proliferation of Jewish symbolism including numerous Magen Davids throughout the facade.
While the exterior of the building is eye catching, the building's interior is its most amazing feature. As early as the 1920s, this congregation began dwindling in numbers as congregants began to move uptown to Harlem, to the Bronx's Grand Concourse, to Westchester County and elsewhere. By the 1950s it was no longer feasible to operate the opulent main sanctuary and the small congregation retreated permanently to the basement of the building for services (this area had previously been used as a house of study). The synagogue's main floor remained sealed until professor Gerald Wolfe rediscovered it sometime in the 1970s.
The building has suffered a great deal of damage in its years of disuse, yet the original feel of the place was undisturbed as prayer books lay open on the seats and the torah scrolls survived in pristine condition within the arc. The most severe damage to the building had been done by water and pigeons, both allowed in through a failing roof. Many of the finishes (ornate painted murals) had faded beyond recognition; wood had rotted, especially in the upper women's gallery, and stained glass had been broken, yet somehow the magical feel of this beautiful historic interior remained from its earliest days.
Over the last thirty years, a non-profit group has been formed to raise money for and oversee restoration of the main sanctuary and to promote this breath taking historic building. The group, called The Eldridge Street Project, has succeeded in raising funds to seal the building with a new roof and temporary windows in the pace of damaged stained glass (still under restoration in 2002). The group has also been able to undertake some more noticeable restoration work, including the cleaning half of a trompe l'oeil mural to the left of the arc (which mimics the arc) and the replication on a missing tablet of the first five commandments directly above the arc.
Today, visitors to the Eldridge Street Synagogue can tour a dusty, partially restored nineteenth century synagogue. It is one of the places in New York City that one might come closest to time travel. In this room where generations of worshippers rubbed grooves into the floor with their feet, where a nervous rabbi left the print of his thumb where he gripped the podium, where gas lighting fixture still remain on every cast iron column and where prayer books and shawls remain stored in cabinets around the walls. In this room it is easy to feel the past and maybe even visit it for a moment. To this end, a field trip to Eldridge Street is highly recommended. A congregation of worshippers still meets in the basement of Eldridge Street Synagogue.
This site can be used to address the following themes of World History as recommended by the New York State Regents.
1. Judaism - This is an excellent site for an exploration into Jewish beliefs and practices, many of which are derived from the earliest development of the religion.
2. Monotheism - The monotheism of Judaism is believed to have been a reaction against polytheism. While it is not certain that Judaism was the first monotheistic religion, it is certainly the oldest monotheistic religion still commanding a significant number of worshippers throughout the globe.
3. Creation/Evolution of Language - Whether it is Hebrew, Yiddish or an older language from the era of the creation of Judaism, this site provide an excellent example to expose students to languages very different than their own. Why do languages develop? How do they evolve over time? What are the benefits of written language? How do characters accurately represent sounds? Yiddish is an excellent example of a language that has fallen out of use. Why had this language become unnecessary and what elements of this language have been given to English as remnants? Interestingly, Yiddish is a language which is Germanic in origin, but uses Hebrew characters. This is due to the fact that Yiddish was a spoken language of people who knew only the Hebrew alphabet in which they read the Torah. When it came time to develop a written form of Yiddish, this was the only alphabet known to Yiddish speakers.
4. The Movements of People - Both in the ancient Middle East, throughout European history and in the modern Lower East Side, Jewish people provide perfect examples of human movement. What are the push and pull factor that have caused these migrations and why do these migrations seem to have lessened today?
5. Laws and Taboos - A great deal of Jewish practice derives from laws and prohibitions found in the Torah. Many of these can be seem on a visit to Eldridge Street. For example, why are women separated from men during services (this practice does not actually originate in the Torah), why do strict Jews cover their heads and wear ear locks? Why are Jewish boys circumcised on their seventh day? The tablets of the Ten Commandments above the arc serve as a reminder of the ten laws of Moses. Ask students if there are any additional laws they believe to be necessary for a good society. How are laws enforced? What is the punishment for lawbreakers in different societies? Leviticus is also another good placed to look for laws and taboos. Ask students to explain the purpose behind each.
6. Cultural Diffusion - The various architectural styles (Moorish, Gothic, Romanesque) incorporated on the facade of this building illustrate the way that various cultures have come in contact with one another, been intermixed over time, and influenced each other. The fact that this congregation felt comfortable employing a vast array of architectural styles (some of them associated with Christianity) on the facade of their building illustrates the way that these cultural influences had become commonplace and lost their associations with a particular culture.
In English this site can be used to study translation and interpretation, oral history and interviewing, public speaking and the Bible as literature.
The Torah (Jewish holy book, same as the Christian New Testament), thought read in Hebrew, must be translated or interpreted for those who do not speak (or think) Hebrew. This process of translation opens the meaning of the Torah up for a great deal of debate. In fact, making meaning of the passages of the Torah is an important part of the Jewish Faith. This site provides an excellent opportunity to introduce the potential pitfalls of translation and the ways that different scholars or interpreters might translate the same passage. Ask students to compare two interpretations of the same Torah passage and discuss the ways that their meaning has been altered.
The Eldridge Street project has done an excellent job collecting oral history interviews regarding the temple and life on the Lower East Side. Using this col1ectio~ this site provides an opportunity to introduce students to the skills of interviewing and transcribing an interview. There is a congregation still worshipping at Eldridge Street today who would be good subjects for an oral history project about how this place has influenced them and why they continue to worship there.
Public worship includes a public speaking and presents a perfect opportunity to introduce students to various rhetorical devices. Eldridge Street has a beautiful speaker's podium and is known for its acoustics. Students might deliver final presentations at the site.
The study of the Bible as literature provides so many possibilities for the English curriculum. From the origins of Biblical stories (many of which have earlier predecessors) to the study of parables, morality stories, prose, poetry, translation. The possibilities are endless.
Connections between this site and science are microorganisms, creationism, rot and decay in wood.
During the time that Eldridge Street was closed up, pigeons and water were able to find their way into the building, causing a great deal of damage. This site provides a great opportunity to examine different types of microorganisms and the ways that they might affect an historic structure.
Obviously, the Torah includes the creation story of Adam and Eve. For science classes this provides an excellent opportunity to open a discussion of creationism and evolution. Could these two theories compliment each other or must one exclude the other? How has our interpretation of the creation story changed over time? What is a literal translation versus a more symbolic one? In what ways can science and religion coexist? How has our society moved from an emphasis on religion, to a belief in science over the last 500 years? Has science become our religion?
Eldridge Street Synagogue's interior is largely made of wood. Over time, and with the introduction of moisture into the building, some of this wood has begun to decay. This situation provides an excellent opportunity to study the cellular structure of wood, its usefulness as a building material (why it is so strong), and its eventual process of decay. An interesting comparison might be the wood structure far below the East River, which forms the basis of the Brooklyn Bridge. Because there is no oxygen under the water, this structure has been saved from decay by the water surrounding it, while the wooden features of Eldridge Street have decayed due to water damage.
Connections between this site and mathematics are numerology, circles, arches and statistics.
The fašade of this building includes many numerological connections, believed to be based on the ideas of mystical Judaism (Kabbalah). In what ways do numbers help us represent ideas or remind us of concepts beyond the number itself? This site also provides an opportunity to study the origins of different numerical systems, which would have existed in the time of the first Jews.
This fašade provides fantastic examples of ornate geometric patterning. Students can examine any number of motifs and look for their repetition, can explore the way different figures interconnect, can explore the size of various figures and can use this building as a physical representation of what they are learning in class. Most notable on the facade might be the arched windows and doors, interlocking triangles of the Magen David, circular emphasis in the stained glass windows, keyhole tracery, etc..
This site is an excellent one for the study of statistics. There are very thorough records of the congregants of this temple and of residents of the Lower East Side in general. This data could be manipulated in any number of ways to serve the purposes of a math curriculum.
Some recommended activities to use with the site are: Eldridge Street Synagogue is an excellent example of the outward expression of faith in architecture. The building carried numerous symbols of the Jewish faith and was designed using religious numerology. In part, the outward expression of the Jewish faith was a relatively new idea, as Jews had long tried to remain inconspicuous in Europe where they might have been subject to persecution for their religious views. Ask students to consider what aspects of themselves or their faith they celebrate on the outside and which they keep hidden. Are their any aspects of themselves or their faith that they feel they must hide? If so, why and how does it make them feel? Do students think they would be able to remain true to something that could bring persecution upon them? What if this thing was an immutable characteristic? Also ask students to consider their own house of worship and compare it to Eldridge Street Synagogue. Is it more or less ornate? Is it newer or older? In what ways does their own religious house display symbols of their faith?
The restoration of Eldridge Street Synagogue will be extremely expensive and can only proceed slowly as funds are raised for the work. Ask students to create a sample budget for the restoration project and to rank the site's restoration priorities. Ask students to give thoughtful reasons for each of their priorities and possibly defend their choices to the class.
Eldridge Street Synagogue is a little-known New York Landmark in need of big money for its restoration. Ask students to create a public relations campaign for the project. What aspects of the site will they highlight and why? What methods would they use to generate interest in the site? What audience would they reach out to? Ask students to mock up this project and present their ideas to Eldridge Street's staff.
During the 1910s and 1920s, many members of the Eldridge Street congregation moved uptown to Harlem, which was then largely Jewish. Some of these members even attempted to start an uptown branch of the congregation. Ask students to do a neighborhood investigation in Harlem to look for evidence of its Jewish heritage (there are numerous examples). Why is it that we do not generally think of Harlem as a Jewish community? Where have the Jews gone and why? In what way have they left behind evidence of their presence? In what ways do we influence the built environment everyday? What physical signs will be left behind us?
Some local buildings which relate to themes addressed in this unit and could be used for additional study are:
Central Synagogue - At 55th Street and Lexington, this is the oldest synagogue in continuous usage in New York City and predates Eldridge Street. The two buildings have a similar look and use much of the same symbolism.
Welsh Chapel on Allen Street - The home of this congregation before the construction of the present building.
Tenement Buildings by Herter Brothers - Throughout the Lower East Side
Lower East Side Tenement Museum (9th grade benchmark) - Explores life on the Lower east Side for immigrant groups though time.
Some recommended activities to use on a visit to this site are to be sure to notice the grooves worn in the floorboards in front on each seat. These grooves are the mark left behind by generations of worshippers who prayer here in this place. In what ways do the buildings we inhabit show evidence of previous users? How will our use be evident once we leave?
Write a reflective journal entry on what it feels like to be in Eldridge Street Synagogue. The space is very powerful and gives a clear sense of the passage of time. In what way does the past influence you or reveal itself to you as you stand in this space?
Look at the tromp l'oeil mural and the tablet of the commandments on the left side of the temple. These have been restored to their original condition. Now compare these bright new-looking decorations to their unrestored counterpart on the right. Which one do you think is more appropriate for the site? Do you think that the building should stay partly a ruin? How would your experience of the building have been different if you had seen a brightly colored, clean interior as this one was on the day it was opened?
American History Workshop. "Historical Detective Work: Looking for the Early History of K'hal Adath Jeshurun Anshe Lubtz and the Eldridge Street Synagogue." February 1991. p. 1-20.
Historical exploration of the congregation and background of Eldridge Street Synagigue.
Cavaglieri, Giorgio. "Eldridge Street Synagogue Historic Structures Report." Unpublished. P. 4-21.
Excellent information on the history of Eldridge Street prepared by a preservation architect as part of an historic structures report
Dunlap, David W. "Tale of Past Jewish Life, Told in Tile." New York Times. Novemver 4, 2001.
One-page article on an archeological dig in the backyard of Eldridge Street Synagogue. The dig uncovered a Mikvah or ceremonial bath which is believed to be part of a bathhouse which once stood on the lot.
Dunlap, David W. and Joseph J. Vecchione. Glory in Gotham: Manhattan's Houses of Worship. A Guide to Their History, Architecture and Legacy. A City and Company Guide; New York. 2001. p. 35-36.
A brief introduction to Eldridge Street Synagogue and its history.
Eisenstein, J.D. "The History of the First Russian American Jewish Congregation: The Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol." New York. 1901.
Except from an unknown publication gives an early history of Russian Jews in New York City specifically including the various buildings used by the congregations, the splits in the Russian Jewish population and general information about the Lower East Side.
Eldridge Street Project. "Chronology of Important Dates at Eldridge Street Synagogue." Unpublished.
Basic timeline of the history of the site and its congregation.
Eldridge Street Project. Our Synagogue: Pride of Place: An Activity Guide. Eldridge Street Project. 1998.
Activity guide for students of all ages to explore the history of your synagogue and congregation. Includes a glossary and extensive bibliography. Workbook format.
Eldridge Street Project. "Self Guided Tour and Orientation Brochure - Working Draft." Unpublished.
Excellent and basic information about the building both inside and out.
Eldridge Street Project. "Vocabulary Words for Docents." Unpublished.
Excellent glossary of word associated with the synagogue.
Eldridge Street Project. "Welcome to Eldridge Street Synagogue: A National Historic Landmark." Unpublished visitor information sheets for Eldridge Synagogue.
Includes a useful glossary of terms relating to Jewish religious practice and the parts of a synagogue.
Eldridge Street Project. "Welcome to Eldridge Street Synagogue: Step In and Guide Yourself Through History." Unpublished children's guide to Eldridge Street Synagogue.
Simple and entertaining activities for children about Eldridge Street.
Israelowitz, Oscar. Lower East Side Tourbook. Israelowitz Publishing; Brooklyn, NY. 1996. p. 5- 80.
Quirky walking tours of the Lower East Side including religious institutions, commercial establishments and associations with important people. Inlcudes neighborhood maps and a list of all historic synagogues in the neighborhood. Amusing and useful.
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. "Eldridge Street Synagogue." Unpublished. July, 1980.
Landmarks report on the architecture and significance of Eldridge Street Synagogue. Good historical background.
The Eldridge Street Project
The official web site of the Eldridge Street project includes a virtual tour of the synagogue, information on tours and programs, and a history of the site and its restoration.
Excellent source on all sorts of information about Judaism including customs, holidays, religious teachings, temples and much more. Very clearly written and easy to understand.
Lower East Side
An excellent site with links to all sorts of writings and resources about the Lower East Side in general
Lower East Side Conservancy
This group organizes tours of many synagogues in the Lower East Side
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