Hale Gurland was among the aspiring artists, bohemians, and hippies who crowded Soho in the 1970s. From the small room he rented on Wooster Street, the Jewish sculptor and painter ventured out one day in 1973 to buy a pair of cheap shoes. On his way, he noticed a derelict synagogue with a “For Sale” sign at 58-60 Rivington, at the corner of Elridge, a scene he described in a magazine interview a couple of years ago: “People were going inside the building because the doors were out, junkies were shooting up. I walked in, and the place looked like Dresden after the bombs.”
By 1979, the recognition Gurland had gained from his metalwork and iron creations enabled him to buy the abandoned house of worship and turn it into studios and residences for local artists. He had the interior fully revamped, but chose to leave the building’s still-beautiful façade mostly intact.
To this day, the three-story red brick building displays the tablets of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, enclosed in a rectangular panel just above two security cameras and a tagged metal gate. A large oculus occupies the central space, vaguely reminiscent of a camera shutter. Originally, it was a giant Star of David. Two narrow towers flank the main structure, each dominated by a roaring lion of Judah. The words “ORGANIZED 1886” appear on the top corner of the left tower. “ERECTED 1903” can be read on the opposite side. The round opening is built under a Byzantine-style arch carved with another Hebrew inscription, from Psalms 118:20: “This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous will enter through it.”
Jews from Romania were well represented. There were approximately 75,000 Romanian Jews in New York in 1914, most of whom congregated within the densely packed perimeter between Chrystie and Allen streets. The First Romanian-American Congregation, founded in 1881, worshiped in a small synagogue at 70 Hester Street. Five years later, the Jews of Jassy, the largest city in eastern Romania, established an eponymous congregation of their own a few blocks west on Hester Street at No. 131.
In 1903, the Jassy congregation moved on from the Hester Street location, pooling the resources of its members to purchase what was an old tenement building at 58-60 Rivington. During the second half of the 19th century, old New York City directories list the occupations of some of the building’s residents as carpenters, masons, physicians, veterinarians, and clerks. The real estate record and builders’ guide of March 30, 1872 identifies the building’s owner as “M. Lanter,” and describes the structure as a “one brick dwelling, three stories, 21 by 40, one story to be added.”
The congregation hired the young architect Emery Roth to design and supervise the construction of what they named the Adath Jeshurun of Jassy Synagogue. Roth was himself a Jewish immigrant whose family had left Austria-Hungary for the United States in 1894. When he designed Adath Jeshurun, he was not yet the celebrated architect whose design credits include such New York landmarks as the Ritz Hotel Tower, the Eldorado, the Beresford and the San Remo.
For the Rivington synagogue, Roth opted for Moorish revival, a popular architectural style inspired by pre-Inquisition Spain, as historian Gerard R. Wolfe explains in his 1978 book, Synagogues of the Lower East Side. Curves and round shapes predominate. The interior plan included two separate women balconies, a unique feature for a Lower East Side synagogue and a sign of its impressively large membership. The sanctuary could accommodate up to 500 worshippers.
A drizzle didn’t stop more than 2,000 people from gathering the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1903 for the laying of the synagogue’s cornerstone and a few hundred more looked on from the fire escapes of their tenements. “There seemed to be as much Americanism as could well be put into one of a semi-religious character,” the New York Daily Tribune reported the following day. “The American flag waved from the platform where the exercises took place, while the whole site of the future temple was lavishly decorated with national colors. The music was patriotic among the selections being ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, ‘Hail to Thee America’ and ‘America.’”
The synagogue’s main benefactor, Louis Haims, laid the cornerstone, which contained a book with the names of the donors. Haims, a local celebrity, made his fortune selling one-penny lemonades and two-cent sandwiches and coffees, initially from a cart on Frankfort Street and later, at a window on the east corner of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World building at 99 Park Row. At lunchtime, a long line of hungry customers queued daily outside the skyscraper.
There must have been a sense of pride and excitement among the Jews of Jassy as Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El, New York’s flagship Reform Jewish congregation, said in his address: “Romania thought to finish the Jews and this is her punishment. Today we are celebrating the entrance and the establishment of the Romanian Jews into this land of liberty.”
But the actual inauguration of the synagogue fell behind schedule, no small thanks to the weather. On August 20, 1904, a record 10-hour rainfall poured down on New York, seriously damaging the ornamental arch. The two lions of Judah, made of concrete, had not yet hardened and, as the The New York Times reported, “when the skies cleared the only things that remained of the lions where the rock pedestals on which each had rested.”
The ceremony finally took place two weeks later, attracting an enormous crowd of 10,000 people. A processional of congregants brought the sacred Torah scrolls from the Hester Street synagogue to the location, protected by 300 policemen. The parade included a band, a horse-drawn carriage with congregants waving a white and blue flag emblazoned with the Star of David and holding the golden front door key to the synagogue’s new home. Eight coaches carried the scrolls and more than 1,000 worshippers marched. After four hours of celebrations, speeches and songs, Rabbi Mordecai Konowitz conducted the first-ever service at the Rivington Street building.
The synagogue soon expanded its service to the community beyond prayer. It included a school for the teaching of modern Hebrew and an active women’s auxiliary engaged in raising funds for the congregation. It also became a venue for political gatherings. In 1907, peasants in Romania revolted against rising rents, a protest that rapidly prompted nationwide anti-Jewish pogroms. In New York, the Central Romanian Relief Committee organized a mass meeting at the synagogue, managing to raise $1,000 at the door to help their Romanian brethren who were under attack.
Despite the generosity of its members, the synagogue soon faced a financial crisis. Since October 1906, a legal dispute opposed the congregation to the Universal Building and Construction Company, comprised of members of the nearby Elridge Street synagogue. The corporation had financed most of the building costs, taking out a mortgage to secure payment, but the loan was now foreclosed.
In June 1907, less than three years after the inauguration, the Universal Building and Construction Co. put up the Rivington synagogue for sale with an asking price of its estimated value of $100,000. The announcement infuriated the membership, some of whom tore down posters announcing the upcoming building public auction.
Announcements of the property on the market appeared in the newspapers repeatedly until Christmas Eve of 1908 when the New York Press reported that a Polish Orthodox congregation had purchased the building. First established in 1889, the Erste Warschuer (First of Warsaw) had been conducting its prayer services in a private room at 155 Rivington.
However, the legal battle over the synagogue’s ownership lasted one more year. On January 8, 1910, Justice James Aloysius O’Gorman of New York State Supreme Court finally settled the case on appeal, rejecting the Romanian congregation’s claim that it had an oral contract with the construction company and that it could buy back the building.
On March 5, 1910, an untoward incident occurred on the synagogue steps. Josephine Koedel, a 35-year-old woman who lived two blocks west on Rivington at No. 6, tried to kill herself in plain view by downing chloroform liniment. “It was reported that she had taken the poison in the house of worship,” the New York Herald reported, adding, “This would have been considered a sacrilege by the Jews, and there were murmurings until it was found that the woman had not entered the building.”
Once installed at the Rivington Street location, the Erste Warschuer Congregation became as influential as the Jassy community among the Jews of the Lower East Side. It made a big splash on May 21, 1916, during the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, when Rabbi Josef Yossele Rosenblatt, known as the Ukrainian “king of cantors,” chanted psalms in front of 3,000 riveted worshipers. Another mass gathering took place six years later, in 1922, when 20,000 Jews paid memorial tribute to Bernard Bernstein, a beloved Jewish comedian of the Yiddish theater and Warschuer congregant. In 1935, some 2,000 people gathered for a memorial service for the late Józef Piłsudski, the former Polish chief of state and head of the military. He was seen as a protector of the Jews.
Two fires a year apart caused significant damage to the structure: a fire in the basement on August 3, 1922 forced an evacuation and the explosion of a gas range in the building’s kitchen on April 12, 1923 caused the death of John Skorowsky, who lived in the building.
Neighborhood celebrities were regulars at 58 Rivington, including the brother-composer-lyricist team of George and Ira Gershwin, Republican New York Sen. Jacob Javits, the film producer Samuel Goldwyn and the comedian George Burns.
The Warschuer Congregation also made space available for political meetings and protests. In December 1938, for example, the American Jewish Federation sponsored an event “to combat fascism and communism” as World War II loomed.
And on April 19, 1944, one year after the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the synagogue hosted a silent commemoration in honor of the 13,000 Jews who perished in the battle. Thousands of people marched from the Warschuer synagogue to City Hall, holding signs with slogans such as, “We appeal to the conscience of America to help save those Jews in Poland who can yet be saved” or “Three million Polish Jews have been murdered by the Nazis! Help us rescue the survivors.” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia assured the gathering that “the rescue of the oppressed peoples in Europe is high on the list of military actions to take place before long.”
After the Holocaust, nearly 140,000 Jewish refugees emigrated from Europe to the United States. Once more, the Lower East Side was a destination chosen by many. During the week and even more so on shabbat, hundreds of Polish immigrants– shoemakers, tailors, cleaners, bakers or pillow suppliers– would gather at the Warschuer synagogue, where services were conducted in Hebrew and Yiddish.
However, the days of the house of worship were numbered. As many Jews left the Lower East Side for better housing, the congregation’s membership shrunk so dramatically that services had to be moved from the sanctuary to the study hall in the basement. The death in 1975 of Rabbi Nuta Shainberg, a Holocaust survivor who had been the congregation’s leader for nearly three decades, symbolized the end of an era. The synagogue could no longer afford to keep functioning.
Shainberg’s son, Abraham, took over for a year, but he wasn’t able to keep the place afloat much longer. “It was a rough time. I was in law school at Saint John’s University and I was getting married too,” said the 63-year old Brooklyn lawyer and art dealer. “Nobody was paying any bills. It couldn’t last.”
Abandoned, the building became the den of despair that Gurland encountered on his shoe-buying foray. At the time, The AIA Guide to New York City described the building as “damaged by vandalism, so its days may be numbered. Worth an extra trip anyway.”
There was at least one effort to ensure the Jewish landmark’s future, led by a collective called the Synagogue Rescue Project. “We were conducting walking tours of the Lower East Side,” said Wolfe, the author of the book about the synagogues of the Lower East Side and a founder of the rescue attempt. “Once a tour ended, we would ask people if they were interested in preserving the synagogues of the neighborhood. We would collect the money and use it for maintenance work.”
Boarded up in those years, it was difficult to discern the one-time magnificence of Emery Roth’s creation. It was Gurland’s purchase in 1979 that not only preserved a jewel of the Jewish Lower East Side, but gave it new life as another kind of sanctuary. With a new rooftop penthouse, too.