Back to the Lower East Side

Photo Essay

By Aaron Greenblatt

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
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After 20 years of renovation, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark, is now open to the public.

The Eldridge Street Project’s restoration campaign is set to finish just before a second inauguration this week, capping an $18 million effort that brought together support from the City of New York and more than 18,000 independent donors from across the country.

On December 2, the newly refurbished and renovated synagogue will open with a rededication celebration, continuing to rekindle the relationship between the local community and the historic building.

The synagogue first opened in 1887 and housed the Ashkenazic émigrés of the Lower East Side. After the Immigration Act of 1924, and once Jews started streaming to the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s from the city, the synagogue’s membership gradually declined, until only a core of worshippers remained active in the building’s basement.

By the 1980s, Jewish activists recognized the synagogue’s historic worth and wanted to stave off further damage to the already derelict building: The Eldridge Street Project was born.

“We wanted to convey the synagogue’s magnificence and what it felt like for those original immigrants,” said Amy Milford, deputy director of the Eldridge Street Project. “At the same time, we wanted the building to tell its stories and for visitors to see its history.”

Ever since, klezmer shows, cantorial concerts, literary events and street fairs have reignited interest in one of the oldest synagogues in America and in the community that surrounded it.

“We celebrate the two cultures that have lived here historically and live here today on the Eldridge Street block,” Milford said, referring to the transition from the Jewish Lower East Side to the heart of what is now Chinatown.

Today, the project, which is being renamed the Museum at Eldridge Street, is further expanding its educational programs. It hopes to continue to appeal to younger generations through interactive exhibits, such as the “history tables,” that provide information about the building and about the cultural, social and political climate that defined the Lower East Side in the early 20th century.

The December 2 celebration will feature New York Times columnist Frank Rich and New York State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, among other figures.

Additionally, the museum will offer free admission from December 3 to December 12.


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