Landmark Synagogue Seeks Right to Demolish Itself

Is 1850 Lower East Side Shul Crumbling Beyond Repair?

Old and Ornate: The leadership of Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol says its structure has deteriorated beyond repair.
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Old and Ornate: The leadership of Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol says its structure has deteriorated beyond repair.

By Reid Singer

Published January 28, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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Like most of the Lower East Side landscape, the synagogue and its surroundings have since changed considerably. Whereas the congregation’s membership was estimated at 1,400 in the late 1960s, it now hovers somewhere in the teens. The building’s front two-story windows, damaged during a summer storm in 1997, have yet to be fully restored. In 2001, an electrical fire severely traumatized the roof and ceiling, exposing the building to deterioration from water and snow.

Because of the resultant exposure of the main sanctuary, the congregation had for years been holding services in a separate room in the synagogue. At the end of 2006, under the leadership of Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum, Oshry’s son-in-law, the congregation ceased to meet in the building altogether, moving their services to a smaller synagogue nearby.

“We put in a lot of needed repairs on a localized level — a patch-up here, patch-up there,” Greenbaum told the Forward, “until it came to a point where we couldn’t continue.”

In late 2011, an order to vacate was issued by the city’s Department of Buildings, citing safety concerns. Efforts to find a developer willing to restore the building from the inside have, by Greenbaum’s description, fallen short.

Critics of the congregation’s current management — which consists mainly of Greenbaum — doubt that the synagogue would have deteriorated to this point had it taken better advantage of grants from various historic preservation agencies.

Laurie Tobias Cohen, the current executive director of the LESJC, chose her words carefully on this point. “People like Oshry may have been brilliant at creating communities, teaching and leading all kinds of Jewish functions,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean that they know how to engage the infrastructure.”

A $230,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, offered in 1999, remained on the table for 11 years. It was never put to use, and eventually it was rescinded. A proposed $750,000 grant, offered in 2006 by the city council, the borough president, and the office of the mayor, was never taken up. Ultimately it was withdrawn, following the economic crash of 2008.

“This seems to be a case of ‘demolition by neglect,’ for which the synagogue should not be rewarded,” a group called Friends of the Lower East Side complained in an email published by the Lo-Down, a community newspaper based on the Lower East Side.


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