This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
At 5pm on a cold Friday evening, a couple dozen men, most wearing black suits, walk towards a red brick, four-story building near Clinton Street on East Broadway. On the facade next to the entrance, large, dark-red and white marks suggest painted-over graffiti. The men do not seem to notice. Above them is a painted sign in Yiddish. Some briefly kiss the fingers of their right hand after touching the mezuzah affixed to the doorpost. As they pass through the narrow entrance, they also enter the Shabbat, the holiest day of the week for observant Jews.
The building at 233 East Broadway now houses a couple of small shtiebels, Jewish prayer rooms, much like others in a row of several, tiny Orthodox synagogues along the same block, a remnant of what was once the largest concentration of Jews in the United States.
Last August, vandals desecrated the building’s facade with “KKK” graffiti. Over the following days, politicians and neighbors gathered to whitewash the scrawls. Dozens of people documented the moment on smartphones. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted about it, writing, “Hate will not be tolerated in New York City.”
It took only a few weeks for the 24-by-87-foot plot of land at 233 East Broadway to fall back into obscurity without any sense or acknowledgment of the history of this plot of land, which can be traced back at least 300 years.
Back in the 18th century, one of New York’s most prestigious Dutch families, the Rutgers, owned the land on which congregations Beth Hachasidim DePolen and Tzheirei Agudath Israel of Manhattan now gather. Harman Rutgers, a brewer and businessman, bought the property and its surrounding lots between 1728 and 1733 for a farm where he grew barley for his beer. Harman was a descendant of Rutger Jacobsen Van Schoenderwoerdt, a Dutchman who arrived in America a century earlier from the Netherlands, aboard a ship called the Rensselaerswyck.
Harman’s grandson, Hendrick, known as Henry, inherited the property. The younger Rutgers, born in 1745, studied at King’s College, which a few decades later became Columbia University. After graduation, at age 20, he managed his grandfather’s business until the Revolution broke out in 1775. Henry advanced to the rank of colonel in the Continental Army. Later in life, he was nominated to be a Presidential Elector three times, and also served as president of the Public School Society of New York.
The Rutgers name remains familiar today because of the eponymous state university system of New Jersey. The family and the institution share the name because Henry saved what was once known as Queen’s College from bankruptcy with a $5,000 donation in 1825. A portrait of Henry that hangs in the university’s Old Queen’s building, shows him to be tall and serious-looking with a long aquiline nose. At his funeral, he was remembered for his generosity, for giving “one-fourth of his income in charity.” The day he died, in 1830, he owned 429 lots with a total estimated value of $907,949.
During the 19th century, the lot changed owners several times. Although the records are incomplete, it’s possible to trace is ownership from the Seamans to the Hamiltons, to the Sanfords, to the Waltons, to the Seligmans and to the Levys.
The red-brick building that now stands on the property was probably built in the late 19th century. Alteration documents from the city Department of Records indicate that several families rented the apartments in the building, each inhabiting a separate floor.
The Kirvis bought the lot in 1885, and sold it one year later to Baruch Pinchus Liberman, a businessman from Russia, who added the building’s fourth story. He owned a wholesale dry goods business, which became so successful that he opened branches in Kansas and San Francisco, too. In 1901, Max Wolper bought the lot from Liberman, and extended the building on the back side. Over the following decade, the lot went from the Wolpers to the Lifschutz family.
In 1905, a rabbi named David Cohen lived in the building with his family. They made headlines in February over the impending marriage of the rabbi’s 16-year-old daugher, Dresah, to a local merchant. Dresah could not have been less enthusiastic. Her parents had chosen a husband she did not want.
Dresah was in love with her employer, John C. Hannan, a 21-year-old who ran a typewriting business, a gentile who could never win her father’s approval. So Dresah made a plan.
As the Shabbat approached one Friday, Dresah decided not to return home to her parents. Hannan gave her some money and found her a place to spend the night. The morning after Dresah did not come home, her mother filed a missing person’s report with the police, who managed to locate her and arrest and charge Hannan with her kidnapping. He spent the night in jail.
Hannan’s case was heard at Tombs Court that Sunday. He told the magistrate, Henry Steinerd, of his love for Dresah and her parents’ opposition, a version of events she was happy to confirm. The New York Tribune referred to the case as one of “racial prejudice.”
“Will you promise to give up the girl?” asked the magistrate.
“No, indeed. I will not,” Hannan replied.
“Well, I’m not going to interfere in a case of love,” the magistrate said. “From all I can learn this young man would make a model husband for the girl. So I see no reason why I should cause them any unhappiness.”
Hannan reaffirmed his determination to marry Dresah. She left the courtroom with her parents. The census records show no sign the two ever wed—in New York City, at least. In a World War II draft registration card of 1942, John C. Hannan was marked as “single.”
Just a few years after this episode, in 1090, Rachel Girsdansky bought the lot from the Lifschutz family. Her husband, Max Girsdansky, was a renowned neurologist and political activist. Max died as one of the most unpopular people on the Lower East Side.
Dr. Girsdansky was born in Kovno, Lithuania, and moved to the United States when he was 15. He studied medicine at New York University and got involved in politics, joining the anarchist group “Pyonire der frayhayt” (Pioneers of Freedom.) Later, in 1901, he was one of the 128 founders of the Socialist Party and wrote regularly for several Yiddish publications.
In 1914, Girsdansky and some of his physician colleagues spoke out against several hospitals that had been demanding payments from charity patients. “Some of these institutions,” they told the New York Times in March, “assert that they are working for charity . . . they have interfered seriously with the legitimate practice of the regular physician.” Although on paper, the hospitals had agreed to facilitate medical visits and drug prescriptions for the poor, they instead had tricked these patients, Girsdansky said, by sending them from hospital department to department, charging a minimal fee at each unit. By the end of their visits, the patients would have paid the equivalent of a private visit.
Together with other doctors, Girsdansky also founded a lobbying group called the Federation of Medical Economic Leagues with the goal of prohibiting hospitals from exploiting low-income patients.
Whatever goodwill Girsdansky’s service to the poor had engendered dissipated quickly as the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917. Girsdansky sided with those in favor of the war, an unpopular position in the largely anti-war climate of the Lower East Side.
He became the chairman for an army recruiting office on 229 East Broadway, a minute away from his apartment, in the chapel of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society. Despite his efforts, he found it difficult to meet the government-imposed recruitment quota because of the neighborhood’s high percentage of immigrants who were not allowed to join the military.
“We must go further down the list and, to make up for the alien percentage, send many men to war who under a fair system would stay home until another call,” he told the Tribune.
One year later, the army recruiting office—at that point located on 196 East Broadway, but still led by Girsdansky—continued to struggle for recruits. In addition to the high percentage of aliens, many of the Lower East Side’s male citizens were passionately against the war. The Tribune referred to the area at the time as the “playground of the pacifist.”
On registration day, in June of 1918, someone threw thousands of printed anti-war leaflets from the historic 10-story building of the Jewish Daily Forward on 175 East Broadway. The leaflets read: “Don’t register!” and “If the government uses force, we will soon be able to use force also. There are thousands behind you.”
Girsdansky died in 1932 of a cerebral hemorrhage in his apartment on 233 East Broadway, leaving his wife Rachel and their seven children. Reports suggest that his political views had made him a pariah with the Jews of the Lower East Side, leaving him with few, if any, patients. The doctor spent his last years experimenting with his passion for photography; he did a lot of film coloring and, in 1919, he filed a patent for improvements he made to the stereoscope, an optical device used to give photos apparent depth.
The Helfgott family then acquired the property at 233 East Broadway, which did not become a house of prayer until 1968, when a Polish Jewish congregation, Beth Hachasidim DePolen, bought it from the Helfgotts for $40,000.
Beth Hachasidim DePolen—in Yiddish, house of the Hassidim of Poland—leased the apartment on the second floor to another congregation, Tzheirei Agudath Israel of Manhattan, which is one of the first branches of the Orthodox movement Agudath Israel of America.
Only a fraction of the men praying at the Polish shul, however, are originally from the congregation. In 2006, the roof of the nearby First Roumanian-American Congregation on Rivington Street collapsed; after the 150-year-old synagogue was demolished, the congregation merged into the Polish shtiebel on East Broadway. Rabbi Spiegel, from the Romanian synagogue, now leads the combined communities.
A congregant from the upstairs synagogue said that, when needed, the two shuls “help each other with the minyan,” the quorum of 10 adult men required for communal prayers.
The “KKK” graffiti painted in August on the facade of 233 East Broadway was easy to remove. A coat of paint erased it, forever. But no paint should ever be able to remove the rich and eventful history of the neighborhood and of the people who inhabited it.