Mourning the Loss of a Lower East Side Jewel

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published April 14, 2006, issue of April 14, 2006.
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The razing last month of the First Roumanian-American Congregation, Shaarey Shamoyim, one of the oldest synagogues on New York City’s Lower East Side, hit me hard. Really hard. Following the collapse of the building’s 150-year-old roof, the city’s Department of Buildings felt it had no choice but to tear down the entire structure, lest lives be lost somewhere along the line. Looking for all the world as if it had been bombed, the First Roumanian-American Congregation has been reduced to rubble, not by an act of war or by Mother Nature but by well-intentioned civic authorities.

A proud testament to the aspirations of Jewish immigrants to the United States — its very name speaks of hope — the First Roumanian-American Congregation was among the hundreds of synagogues established by Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Originally a Methodist church, the Romanesque Revival building with more than 1,600 seats was transformed into a synagogue in 1890. Few Lower East Side synagogues were as imposing as this one; most, in fact, more closely resembled storefront churches than they did monumental edifices. But all of them, from the most makeshift to the most elaborate, attested to a collective determination to make a go of Judaism in the New World.

At first blush, I couldn’t say exactly why the demolition of the First Roumanian-American Congregation troubled me so. After all, the congregation per se had not been destroyed, only its physical shell, and there is every reason to think that it will relocate elsewhere. What is more, I myself never even got to see the inside of this synagogue, let alone daven there. Nor did any of my forbears or, for that matter, those of my friends who now call the Lower East Side their home. In the absence, then, of any personal connection to the First Roumanian-American Congregation, why do I feel such a profound sense of loss?

It may well be that, in the wake of the Shoah, the physical destruction of a synagogue — any synagogue — seems needlessly wanton and cruel. It may well be that the image prominently displayed in The New York Times of the congregation’s sanctuary casually exposed to the elements powerfully evoked similar images of ruined synagogues, casualties of Kristallnacht. No sentient person coming of age after World War II can fail to make such connections.

All the same, I suspect there’s even more to my dismay than that. The more I mull things over, the more it seems to me that what truly occasions my sense of loss is the uncomfortable realization that the links — and buildings — that bind American Jewry to its history are not only few and far between but also steadily eroding. (Even as I write, The New York Sun reports that the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue, also on the Lower East Side, has been approached by developers eager to transform the aging building into condominiums.)

Yes, we all pay a great deal of lip service to the importance of memory and continuity and heritage and patrimony, or whatever happens to be the buzz-word du jour, especially when it comes to raising funds for a veritable cavalcade of Jewish organizations. And with Passover, a holiday that positively revels in retrospection, now upon us, we are mindful, momentarily, of the passage of time.

But of history as an animating force? As a constant presence in our lives? Well, there’s very, very little of that. Victims of our own success, we American Jews are tone deaf to the blandishments of our own history. Having flourished in the United States, able within the space of a generation to flee the slums of the Lower East Side and Chicago’s Maxwell Street and Boston’s North End for more comfortable surroundings and then, a generation later, to exchange these digs for even more splendid accommodations in the suburbs, we’ve turned our back on our humble history, leaving it to fend for itself. Age-old buildings and archives and artifacts languish, unable to attract our attention, let alone our support.

If there can be a grace note to the razing of the First Roumanian-American Congregation, perhaps it would be this: As we sit around the Seder table, heeding the ritual injunction to remember, let’s expand the embrace of memory to include not just our ancient past but also the past made real and tangible by the founders of the First Roumanian-American Congregation. Let’s make a concerted effort to honor our history as American Jews before even more of it falls prey to the wrecking ball.

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