The Museum at Eldridge Street is a marvelous reminder of a Jewish community that once was. More than a century ago, it was home to an active house of worship, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, that served a robust Eastern European Jewish immigrant neighborhood in New York’s Lower East Side.
But during a visit to the site on a brisk fall day, foot traffic into the synagogue-turned-museum was limited to tourists. Sounds of worship came not from the synagogue, but from a Buddhist temple on the same block, whose wondrous chants rang out into the street. This area, once home to the world’s largest number of Jews, is now part of an expanded Chinatown.
The story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, however, is not one of sorrow. The decline of this Moorish Revival synagogue and that of the Jewish Lower East Side is the result of the upward mobility afforded by America. Jews moved from the Lower East Side to other parts of New York and the United States not because of persecution, but due to growing opportunity and prosperity.
Indeed, the Museum at Eldridge Street is a monument — a monument to America the Goldene Medina, Yiddish for the golden or promised land.
The Rise of the Jewish Lower East Side
Opened in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is the first purposely-built synagogue by Eastern European Jews in New York City. But it was by no means New York City’s first Jewish shul or temple. That distinction would go to Congregation Shearith Israel, which build its first synagogue in 1730 on Mill Street in lower Manhattan.
This community made up the first wave of Jewish migrants to what is now New York. In 1654, Sephardic settlers arrived in what was then the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. Their congregation, Congregation Shearith Israel, moved numerous times over the centuries, making a synagogue on West 70th Street its home since 1897.
In the early-mid 1800s, Dutch and German Jews immigrated to New York, establishing reform synagogues, including the Anshe Chesed Synagogue on the Lower East Side and the stunning Moorish Revival Central Synagogue in midtown.
By the second half of the 19th century, the demographics and geographic distribution of America’s Jewish community would change dramatically, driven by strife in the Russian Empire and America’s openness.
In 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated, bringing an end to an era of relative tolerance for Jews. Impoverished Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews poured into New York City, escaping vicious pogroms in Tsarist Russia and persecution in Romania. The vast majority made their way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, living in squalid tenements and generally toiling as pushcart vendors or textile workers.
The lives they lived were difficult and dangerous, as journalist Jacob Riis vividly depicts in his How the Other Half Lives. Many of the nearly 150 garment workers who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 were Jewish women from the Lower East Side.
Despite the adversity they faced in America, what these migrants left in the Old Country was far worse. And so they came to New York in droves.
In his classic World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe writes that New York City’s Jewish population grew from 60,000 in 1870 to 80,000 in 1880, and then swelled to 1.1. million by 1910. For the tired, poor, and huddled Eastern European Jewish masses, the Lower East Side was a chaotic, grueling launchpad into America — as it was for the Germans and Irish who preceded them and the Chinese, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans who came after.
New York fast emerged as the largest Jewish city in the world. And the Lower East Side became an international center of the Jewish diaspora. Eastern European Jewish immigrants not only set up kosher meat shops and Orthodox shuls, but established Bundist socialist study groups and Yiddish newspapers and theaters.
This is the fulcrum on which the Eldridge Street synagogue came into existence.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is Born
When the Eldridge Street Synagogue opened in 1887, roughly 75 percent of New York’s Jews lived on the Lower East Side. There were scores of shtiebels (informal prayer spaces) in storefronts and tenements. Two years prior, another Orthodox congregation, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, purchased a Baptist church on Norfolk Street and converted it into a synagogue.
But the Eldridge Street Synagogue was the first grand Eastern European Jewish synagogue built from the ground up not just in New York, but all of America. Its completion was a sign that the community — poorer than their German and Sephardic religious kin — had finally arrived.
The Eldridge Street congregation was by no means affluent. Journalist Richard Wheatley, who visited the synagogue a few years after its opening, describes the congregation as a mix of artisans and lawyers, clerks and laborers, and merchants and peddlers. Struck by the synagogue’s class diversity, Wheatley wrote, “E pluribus Unum receives a new meaning here.”
The Eldridge Street Synagogue would not have been possible without the patronage of its wealthy founders, including banker Sender Jamulowsy and the “Kosher Sausage King of America” Isaac Gellis. They served as presidents of the first Eastern European Jewish shul in New York City, Beth Hamedrash (the House of Study). Their congregation merged with another to form Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun, which would form the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
The success of these men proved that one could be an observant Jew and prosperous in America.
Eldridge Street Synagogue Architectural Features
It’s unclear to what extent the congregation played a role in the synagogue’s design. The architects were actually non-Jewish brothers, Peter and Francis William Herter, who immigrated from Germany. They built tenements nearby that included motifs, like the Star of David and horseshoe arches, that are prominent on the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue features Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish Revival styles. With domed finials and dozens of horseshoe arches on its facade, it is perhaps the Moorish Revival style that stands out most prominently on the synagogue’s exterior.
The use of Islamic architectural features on a synagogue was not unusual for the time. In fact, for German reform congregations in the 19th century, it was the norm.
For central European Jews, the embrace of Islamic architecture allowed them to differentiate themselves from the Christian majority while also identifying with the “Orient” or the East. For some, Moorish Revival synagogues also pointed toward an idyllic era in Jewish history: that of Islamic Spain and its relative tolerance for Jews.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue imitated the Moorish Revival style of the more established and affluent uptown German reform Jews. Its poorer, Eastern European Orthodox congregation could have also been trying to send the message that they could also produce a grand synagogue of their own and in a style that was associated with a higher social class.
While the intent of the synagogue’s designers remains opaque, some have attributed religious symbolism to a number of the exterior’s architectural features. The twelve roundrels in the Rose Window perhaps symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. The ten horseshoe arches that line the roof could represent the Ten Commandments.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue interior is even more stunning. It features a 50-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, brass chandeliers, dozens of Gothic stained glass windows, and hand-stenciled walls.
The congregation was not rich. It took some measures to save on cost. The exterior was made of brick and terracotta, instead of more expensive stone material. Inside the synagogue, finishing techniques were applied to surfaces to imitate more expensive materials like marble.
The centerpiece of the main sanctuary is the walnut Torah Ark (Aron Hakodesh) with the Ten Commandments illuminated by a ring of lights. As was traditional, the bimah, from where the Torah scroll is read, is located in the center of the main sanctuary. (More assimilated Jewish congregations had moved the bimah to the front of the congregation.)
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is an Orthodox congregation. Men worshipped on the ground floor of the main sanctuary, while women and children prayed separately on the balcony above.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is Reborn as the Museum at Eldridge Street
For five decades, the Eldridge Street Synagogue served a thriving Jewish community. But the Lower East Side was always a place where people made their start in America.
The community’s affluent members, including Sender Jarmulowsky, moved uptown. Halaichk restrictions on mobility on the Sabbath for Orthodox Jews meant that they had to establish congregations in proximity to new homes. And for the poorer members of the community, those new homes were in Brooklyn.
In 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge opened, connecting the Lower East Side to Brooklyn. The completion of the bridge facilitated the migration of Jews to Brooklyn. It actually came to be known as the “Jews’ Bridge.”
Over the decades, upwardly mobile Jews also moved on to Harlem, the Bronx, and then Queens and Long Island. Quotas established by the Immigration Act of 1924 also curbed the flow of fresh immigrants to the Lower East Side. And so as the Jewish population of the Lower East Side began to decline in the 1930s, so too did the Eldridge Street Congregation. By the 1950s, the main sanctuary was closed. Worship services continued in the basement.
Then, in 1971, Gerard Wolfe, a professor at New York University, “discovered” the Eldridge Street Synagogue while researching for a book on the Lower East Side’s synagogues. With the help of the synagogue’s custodian, Wolfe was able to open the sealed sanctuary. Entering the room, he said, “was like walking into the twilight zone.”
Wolfe’s discovery led to campaigns to preserve and restore the synagogue. In 1980, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was designated a landmark by the city of New York. In 1996, the synagogue was made a National Historic Landmark.
Preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz led a decades-long restoration effort. On December 2, 2007, after two decades and $20 million in expenses, the main sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue was reopened to the public, after a herculean restoration campaign. A new, more modern, turquoise stained-glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith was added in 2010. It reflects the site’s efforts to preserve the old while also embracing the new.
In that spirit, the site has since operated as the Museum at Eldridge Street. Orthodox services continued on the Sabbath up till the COVID pandemic. But the museum is a non-sectarian organization that embraces its current context as a historic synagogue in an expanded Chinatown.
This blending of immigrant cultures is quite fitting given that Chinese food was a way for Eastern European Jews to negotiate their assimilation as Americans. For many Jews, Chinese food was considered “safe treyf” — that is non-Kosher food that was, for a variety of reasons, a least bad option.
Though the Jewish community of the Lower East Side has largely moved on, it’s left its mark on the area’s architecture. Along with the Museum at Eldridge Street, the Jarmulowsky Bank Building and the Forward Building signify the multiple trajectories in which Eastern European Jews chose to embrace Americanness.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue — now the Museum at Eldridge Street — tells the story of how New York became the largest Jewish city in the world, leaving an indelible mark on its culture. But this story is not just a Jewish story. It is a New York story and an American story too.
Visiting the Museum at Eldridge Street
The Museum at Eldridge Street is located in Lower Manhattan on 12 Eldridge Street.
It’s open every day of the week except for Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, and $8 for children between the ages of 5-17. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.
The museum is a five-minute walk from the B or D train stop at Grand Street and the F train stop at the East Broadway station.
Further Reading About the Museum at Eldridge Street and the Jewish Lower East Side