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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Some critics have cited in particular the synagogue’s management since the torch was passed to Greenbaum from Oshry in the early 2000s. “We worked for all these years carefully with the family and the leadership,” the LESJC’s Kaye said. “It has since become apparent that at some point during the process, Beth Hamedrash leadership made a decision to go off in a completely different direction without informing the people they were working with.”

Greenbaum offered a decidedly different account. He says he worked faithfully with the LESJC over the past 12 years, and that the loss of grants from the city and state were attributable to a cumbersome bureaucracy, the government’s funding pullback since the financial downturn and a collective failure to procure matching funds from private donors — not to any foot-dragging on his own part.

“We acted the most efficient way we were able and capable,” Greenbaum said.

The government grants required matching funds, he noted. “There was one matching fund that we were struggling together with the conservancy [to get]. After eight years, it was allocated, [but only if] the building was… transferred into a nonreligious corporation,” Greenbaum said. “After 9/11, those procedures would have taken months and months.”

LESJC officials counter that transferring the synagogue into a nonreligious corporation would have taken a few weeks at the most.

Conservationists familiar with Beth Hamedrash have wondered aloud if the decision to demolish might be rooted less in the impossibility of redeeming the building than in the cash-generating potential of new apartments at the edge of Seward Park, which received approval for a mixed-use development in October. Greenbaum flatly denies this.

The synagogue has refused more than a few offers over the years from developers looking to convert the address into a for-profit entity as property values in the neighborhood have continued to climb, Greenbaum related. “We shook them off, even when the profit was on the table,” he said. “This has nothing to do with Seward.”

But given the failure to find any developer to work on the existing structure after all this time, “we had to try whatever’s possible for our congregation and the history of our congregation,” Greenbaum said. “My voice has always been to preserve the building. But like I said, things happen, they happen, so at least we need to save whatever is possible for our cause.”

Contact Reid Singer at feedback@forward.com


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