(Photos: Holly Pickett)

Kaleidoscopic colors illuminate the interior of Anshe Slonim Synagogue at 172 Norfolk St. on the Lower East Side. Sapphire, scarlet, magenta, and emerald take turns reflecting off peeling gold paint and the pulse of the Bee Gees’ 1977 disco classic “Night Fever” radiates from speakers facing the sanctuary. In front of the Ark—in most synagogues, the special cabinet housing the Torah, Judaism’s holy text—actors perform a musical based on New York City’s notorious Studio 54 nightclub. During the musical numbers, the audience members boogie on a square dance floor, lit from below with fuchsia and white lights. Above it all, a rotating disco ball flings sparks of light across the room.

“Lost in the Disco,” an off-Broadway production of “immersive theater,” was just the latest artistic enterprise to take place in New York City’s oldest standing synagogue building. It was once home to one of the city’s—and the country’s—largest Jewish congregations, and the second New York City congregation to adopt the Jewish Reform movement. Anshe Slonim Synagogue, originally Anshe Chesed Synagogue, is now the Angel Orensanz Foundation: an arts, culture, and events center. Resurrected from near destruction, this building is a landmark of New York City Jewish history, its official status bestowed in 1987. This year, the synagogue will celebrate its 170th anniversary. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side had the largest Jewish population in the world, with more than 350 active congregations and 70 synagogue buildings. Synagogues like the one at 172 Norfolk anchored immigrants to an unfamiliar city, providing not only a community and the comforting rites of their religious identity, but also assistance and mediation for everything from debts owed to spurned suitors to noisy neighbors. They were central to Jewish life. Not only that, but Congregation Anshe Chesed helped usher in a break from Judaism’s Orthodox past: the Reform movement would become a prominent branch of Judaism in the United States.

In 1524, Giovanni da Verranzano and the first Europeans sailed into the waters separating what we call today Staten Island and Brooklyn, finding the lands peopled by the indigenous Lenape. A hundred years passed before the Dutch West India Company began to colonize the area they named New Netherland, between what is now the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Peter Stuyvesant, who ran the colony beginning in 1647 and whose name graces many a New York City locality, is the best known of the early Dutch governors. Stuyvesant was in charge when the British captured the area in 1664, renaming it New York.

In The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, magazine editor and author Henry Moscow writes that Stuyvesant, “the only bigot among the Dutch governors,” tried to expel the first Jewish settlers, Sephardic Jews—descendants of Jews forced out of Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition—who had arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654.

The architectural historian Gerard Wolfe revealed the contents of Stuyvesant’s letter to the Dutch West India Company, recommending eviction of the Jews from New Amsterdam, in Wolfe’s 1978 book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side:

The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they—with their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians—were very repugnant, and fearing that owing to their present indigence they might become a charge in the coming winter, we have deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart; praying most seriously that the deceitful race be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.

In 1682, the Dutch West India Company directors in Amsterdam overruled Stuyvesant, and the Jews stayed, establishing Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in what was by then New York. From this foundation, the Jewish population in the “New World” very slowly began to grow.

“Prior to the American Revolution, the area consisted of farmland owned by wealthy landholders,” writes Sanna Feirstein of what is today the Lower East Side in her book Naming New York. It wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War that the land was broken into lots, usually 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, and sold. New York City Register records do not begin showing recorded lot numbers for block 355 until 1825.

City Register records show that the land on which the Anshe Slonim Synagogue now stands—Manhattan block 355, lots 41-43—was part of Leandert Farm, a tract belonging to Peter Stuyvesant’s descendant Petrus Stuyvesant. In his will, Petrus divided the farmland equally among his four daughters: Judith, Cornelia, Elizabeth, and Margaret. At his death in 1805, Cornelia Ten Broeck (her married name) received the parcel including lots 41-43 of block 355.

After Cornelia’s death, those three lots eventually ended up in the hands of Daniel Rhoades, who sold them to “The Trustees of the Congregation of Anshi Chesed,” on April 11, 1849. Also referred to as Anshei Chesed, Anschei Chesed, Ansche Chesed, and, most frequently, Anshe Chesed, the “People of Kindness” would consecrate their newly built synagogue the following year. (This Congregation Anshe Chesed is not related to the congregation of the same name currently located at W. 100th in Manhattan.)

Jewish immigrants did not start arriving in New York in large numbers until the 19th century. Congregation Anshe Chesed was New York City’s third formalized congregation. The founders, Gerard Wolfe tells us, broke off from New York’s second congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, in 1828. They were part of a wave of recent Ashkenazi—that is, European Jews—immigrants from Germany, Holland, and Poland, and were “of a low social and economic status,” states the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s landmark designation report, written by Virginia Kurshan in 1987. This document also notes that Anshe Chesed became the first Jewish congregation to locate on the Lower East Side, where its leaders first rented a room at 202 ½ Grand Street.

Handwritten trustees minutes of the congregation dating from 1836 to 1874 reside at Temple Emanu-el on the Upper East Side, the flagship Reform congregation in the United States and the one with which Anshe Chesed eventually merged. Those records illuminate life for the congregation’s members before they built their synagogue on Norfolk Street, and during the 24 years they called it home. The records detail the congregation’s internal politics, finances, and priorities.

Using the date of the Jewish lunisolar calendar, the minutes on Oct. 18, 1836 impart in sweeping ink script: 

The Trustees audited the Treasurers Accounts and found same correct up to October 18, 5596. Moved and seconded that this meeting be adjourned till after the Congregational meeting.

On Nov. 3, 1836: 

Moved by Mr Samuels and seconded by Mr Marcus Van Geldren that Mr Joseph Aaron be appointed Clerk of this Congregation and secretary of the board of Trustees at a Salary of twelve dollars and fifty cents per Quarter with free seat in the Synagogue of the Congregation to Commence on the first of November instant.

The board dealt with money matters: bills, loans, insurance, and salaries. The Rev. Jonas Hecht, for example, received $66.66 for two months salary on July 28, 1844. It authorized gifts of money to newly engaged couples and to low-income members in need. The trustees wielded significant power: they collected dues from each member—sometimes suspending membership for failure to pay—and decided how to allocate the congregation’s resources.

On Jan. 16, 1837: 

A message was received from Benedict Solomon through L H Jackson Proposing to Settle his account with the Congregation on condition that his suspension be removed…On Motion Resolved that the above can not be taken into consideration until Mr. Benedict Solomon’s accounts with this congregation are paid . . .

Members also turned to the congregation leadership to settle matters of life big and small, the particulars of which the Anshe Chesed board secretary noted for posterity. As if coming before a civil court of law, congregants peppered the trustees with requests for arbitration, mediation, and dispute-resolution, stating their case before the board, which then decided whether to take action.

At a Meeting of Trustees held Oct. 25th 5596…Mr Joseph Lazarus appeared before us with the following request [:] to call Mrss. M H and J H Levy to appear before us to give their reason why they will not allow him to marry their sister according to agreement…Resolved that we meet at Seven OClock to Morrow Evening to hear their Answer.

The following day, the minutes reported that M.H. Levy refused to appear before the board, opting to “leave it to his lawyer.”

The minutes hint at the lifestyles of the congregation’s members in other ways:  

Resolved that 12 iron spittoons and 4 towels be bought for use of the Congregation and that a committee be appointed to get the same… 

And here:

The following bills were ordered to be paid and orders on the treasurer given viz for Candles. 8.00. 1 month salary to [cantor] 33 33/100 , beers & refreshments & flowers 5 38/100 – alterations on blk boards $1 59/100 , repairing clock 3 00/100

Perhaps before New York City enforced noise ordinances, the board occasionally scolded its members for minor infractions, as in this entry from March 31, 1844: 

A letter from Mr Rvd Jonas Hecht was read complaining about being disturbed by Mr [or Ms] Isaac’s family through the noise in their room late in the evening and desiring the trustees to request Mr Isaacs to have such proceedings stopped in future. Mr Isaacs was called before the board and ordered to have the like proceedings stopped in future.

In fact, the board reprimanded the Rev. Jonas Hecht when this matter came before them in 1844: 

The President stated that frequently he has heard complaints about the [cantor] being round in parlor houses at all times of day and late at night, playing at cards, billiards dominoes and very often with persons unfit for him to associate with… 

The board resolved to write Rev. Hecht a letter, demanding that he “alters his course of conduct,” lest he feel the body’s “harsher means.”

The trustees dealt with the more significant concerns of life as well: 

The Treasurer W M Polack paid to Mr E. Metz for what he had advanced towards the Expenses of Two Coaches of the Burial of the Child of Bensears Borenstein which was Interned in the Burying Ground of this Congregation the 27th [illegible] the Sum of $4.00.

The growing congregation’s need for a larger space was a constant board meeting preoccupation. On Feb. 7, 1836, the minutes announced:

Mess. Mets and Samuel Reported that the large Room on the second story of the Dispensary can be got on Lease of Ten Years at the Yearly Rent of $300 with the Privilege of Yard.

The board resolved to rent the New York Dispensary room at White and Centre Streets on the longest lease possible, but by 1842, the congregation’s membership swelled and the congregation outgrew the space. A converted Quaker Meeting House at 38 Henry Street served Anshe Chesed next but within a few years, it too became too small. 

The spikes in membership in the 1840s were a likely outgrowth of new social and economic policies in German states. Gerard Wolfe again provides the context in his book: At the time, the Bavarians imposed marriage and travel restrictions, as well as high taxes, on Jews. The European economy faltered, and in 1848, a host of democratic revolutions across the continent failed, propelling more immigrants from Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Russia across the Atlantic. So many German-speakers settled in the Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods by mid-century that the area became known as Kleindeutschland or little Germany.

The congregation had enough numbers to have its own school, but no space for classrooms, so in 1848, the board rented a room for this purpose. The trustees minutes note the School Committee began to work closely with the board to get everything ready—hiring teachers to teach English and Hebrew, buying books, and making needed repairs to the schoolhouse.

On April 11, 1849, the trustees bought the three plots of land on block 355, and hired German architect Alexander Saeltzer to draw up plans for a synagogue that could hold 1,200 people: 500 women in the gallery and 700 men in the sanctuary below. The congregation decided to build the synagogue in the traditional setup—separating men and women—indicating that they had not yet embraced the Jewish Reform movement. Congregation Anshe Chesed would wrestle with whether to fully adopt the new tenets of reform over the next couple of decades.

Saeltzer designed a grand, Gothic-style building, 70 feet wide and 95 feet deep. The landmark designation report describes the synagogue’s striking exterior features:

Two projecting, buttressed, square towers flank the central section. Originally three stories high and capped by concave pyramidal roofs, these towers have been truncated above the second story. They are pierced by a tall lancet window at each floor level…A broad flight of stairs, reaching across the front from one tower to the other, leads up to the recessed central section.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, provided the inspiration for Anshe Chesed Synagogue’s design, writes Gerard Wolfe, in the second edition of his Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, published in 2012. “Indeed, in acknowledging the German Cathedral—even as they built their own impressive New York synagogue—the German Jews of Kleindeutschland consciously demonstrated that they had succeeded in participating in two worlds.”

The trustees tackled synagogue construction, requesting bids from carpenters and masons and estimates for building materials. From the minutes book on Oct. 3, 1849:

On motion resolved that a committee be appointed to get some estimates of the cost of pipes for 65 outlets with labor & fittings required for the introduction of gazlight [sic] at the new Synagogue also for the plumbing help I. Koon, Judel Klerahang J. W. Waller were appointed as such committee.

On motion resolved that a committee be appointed to take a lawyers advice about the propriety and the right of the trustees fixing the price of seats in the new [synagogue] at a higher rate if paid after the 1st of November than if payment of 1/5 of [illegible] had been tendered previous to that date.

From the minutes book on Nov. 11, 1849:

Ctee [Committee] on sewer reported to have received an estimate from Schmidt & Schaeffer & handed the same to the President. On motion resolved that the report be accepted & that Ctee remain on this business.

Congregation President Isaac Fisher described the synagogue’s majestic-sounding consecration at a board meeting after the May 16, 1850 ceremony. The event, accompanied by an orchestra and a choir, included Anshe Chesed clergy, the congregation’s founders and trustees, rabbis from other congregations, and local dignitaries.

Among the visitors were the Mayor of this city, the Hon Caleb Woodhull, some aldermen, and a great many other persons of distinction…The Rev Leon Hernberger our head [cantor] was much admired as well on account of his own vocal abilities as on account of the perfection in the execution of the pieces sung by the choir, who had been taught by him in a very short time but with great assiduity.

The Jewish Reform movement originated in Germany, so it is not surprising that the movement found fertile ground in the United States, where so many German-Jewish immigrants made new lives in the mid-late 1800s. One of those German immigrants, Leo Merzbacher, was the first ordained rabbi to come to the U.S. and a proponent of reform. He served as one of Anshe Chesed’s first rabbis. Another reform rabbi by the name of Max Lilienthal also served at Anshe Chesed. Both men make appearances in the trustees’ minutes.

Ideas about modifying Jewish ritual and practice to suit the modern age germinated in Enlightenment Europe. Reform rabbi and theologian Dana Evan Kaplan writes the movement differed in the U.S., where “a much freer and more pluralistic atmosphere prevailed,” than in Europe. Reformers began to introduce English prayers alongside the Hebrew and permitted instrumental music. Kaplan argues that the reforms in the U.S. were not only ideological, but also practical adjustments to American life–adaptations to dress, lifestyle, and language. 

As Congregation Anshe Chesed grew into their new synagogue building, they began vigorously debating reforms. In July 1857, a correspondent called Zaphaniah wrote a two-part editorial in The Israelite, a prominent Jewish Reform newspaper. He reported on a meeting that nearly split Congregation Anshe Chesed in two. The majority group, “in favor of progress and reform,” wanted a rabbi to lead religious services, a major break with tradition. A smaller group, “our Orthodox brethren,” which included the board president, voted against the idea, so the reform group created a committee to establish a breakaway congregation. At a second meeting on the issue, the minority “made themselves notorious by causing a quarrel.” The board president “immediately adjourned the meeting, and…took refuge in leaping and creeping out of the back window of the room…”

The incident precipitated new leadership later that year, a fact celebrated by a congregant in The Israelite. The author, E.M., likewise lamented Anshe Chesed’s fall in stature: “Alas! the fine days of our congregation are gone!…The temple stands there, like a giant, prospering with influence, wealth, and a truly divine service…” The “temple” he compared to Anshe Chesed was the new name for a synagogue started by New York City’s first Jewish Reform congregation, Emanu-El.

Anshe Chesed reformers continued to increase, as more members pondered the changes. At the Synod of Jewish Rabbis in Leipzig in 1869, a skeptical contributor by the name of Fritz wrote a dispatch for the Jewish Messenger. Calling the meeting a “success as far as the radicals are concerned,” he described the gathering:

Germany—especially free-thinking Germany—is well represented here…There is a lack of the conservative element, the ultra-orthodox being absent entirely, and very few of the conservatives lending their energies to make this Synod a success.

Fritz noted the presence of one Mr. Simon Hermann, “who represents the Norfolk Street Congregation [a nickname for the synagogue at 172 Norfolk]…which seems equivalent in the eyes of many here to his representing all of North and South America.”

In 1873, Congregation Anshe Chesed built a new temple and merged with Adas Jeshrun, another reform congregation. The building at 172 Norfolk changed hands as the surrounding neighborhood also began to change. The late 19th century and early 20th century felt a massive surge of Jewish Orthodox Russian and Eastern European immigrants. The new occupants at 172 Norfolk belonged to Congregation Shaari Rachmim; in 1886 they sold the building to First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek. Finally, in 1921, Congregation Sheveth Achim Anshe Slonim, founded by immigrants from the Polish/Belurussian village of Slonim, bought the building and stayed until 1974, when they abandoned it. 

“The immediate surrounding neighborhood had gradually succumbed to the effects of extreme poverty, drugs, and crime and it was often unsafe for synagogue members to attend services,” writes Gerard Wolfe.

“Today there are only about 15,000 Jews and only half a dozen of the old synagogues still have congregations,” wrote Israel Shenker in a March 19, 1974 New York Times article lamenting the destruction of the neighborhood’s synagogues. “Year by year the synagogue lights go out. Many are carried off by intruders, and there is often no money to pay electricity bills for those remaining.”

Wolfe, who was leading tours of the Lower East Side synagogues at the time, described the severely vandalized Anshe Slonim: “Every stained glass window has been broken. They stole the pipes two weeks ago. The next time you pass here it may be a parking lot.” 

That may have been true if not for a Spanish sculptor who wandered by while looking for studio space one day.

“It was love at first sight,” Angel Orensanz said in Spanish during an interview. “It was waiting for me.”

In 1986, Orensanz bought the Anshe Slonim Synagogue for $500,000, and got to work installing water and electricity, replacing windows, and repairing the roof. He estimates that he poured $5 million into the restoration. After the building’s landmark designation the following year, Orensanz told the New York Times he wanted to turn it into an artist colony, with living and studio space, but that never came to be. Instead the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts was officially inaugurated in 1988. Eventually it housed a studio for Orensanz and a gallery of his work.

172 Norfolk’s notoriety as an arts destination and performance space grew after Whitney Houston filmed her music video for “I’m Every Woman” there in 1992. Sarah Jessica Parker’s 1997 wedding to Matthew Broderick helped it develop into a popular venue for weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs, parties, and other private events.

The synagogue’s brick red and rose-painted stucco walls rise between tenement apartment buildings. These days Orensanz’s yellow, red, and green cylindrical metal sculptures adorn the front steps, which have been painted in the same yellow, red, and green of the sculptures. Coppery metallic paint shimmers on the doors, and a portrait of Angel Orensanz hangs above the main entrance. In the expansive Gothic window high above the street, the panes form the Star of David. On smaller windows flanking either side of the centerpiece, someone has painted faint human figures, some of them playing musical instruments, onto the glass.

From the street, it resembles a house of worship, only funkier.

Under the deep blue rib vault ceiling inside, workers busily arrange a sound system and set up tables and chairs for an evening event. Roberto Santiago, director of Orensanz Events, rushes to and fro, giving direction while fielding the visitors who wander into the building.

In the past three decades Angel Orensanz Foundation has hosted photography and art exhibitions, fashion shows, lectures, concerts, and theater. Orensanz started listing some of the big names who have crossed the threshold: Mandy Patinkin, Salman Rushdie, Lady Gaga, Susan Sarandon, Lou Reed, Al Pacino. Groups hold community events and the Shul of New York celebrates High Holidays there. Orensanz has also used the space for dramatic installations.

“He wanted to save it and make this cultural space, as it is now,” Santiago said, speaking about Orensanz and the artists who use the space. “The owner is an artist himself, so they reinforce the cultural spirit of this building.”