Story's the Same, Only the Shul Has Changed

Lincoln Square Synagogue Follows Emanu-El on Oblivion Path

Bring On Your Wrecking Ball: In its heyday, Lincoln Square’s sanctuary-in-the-round was considered to be daring.
WIkimedia Commons
Bring On Your Wrecking Ball: In its heyday, Lincoln Square’s sanctuary-in-the-round was considered to be daring.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published February 08, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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The synagogue’s manifold charms, though, were not enough to hold change at bay. Little by little, Midtown Manhattan succumbed to increasing commercialization, a process rued by The New York Times, which, in a February 1926 article titled “One by One, the Avenue’s Landmarks Go,” cataloged Fifth Avenue’s transformation from a genteel residential street into a “restless, urgent” commercial artery. Temple Emanu-El’s home was among the casualties of change. Before long, it, too, came to be valued as a commodity, prompting a series of unusually complicated real estate transactions that culminated in the synagogue moving to a brand-new location, a mile or so uptown.

For all the excitement and sense of possibility that attended this new chapter in Temple Emanu-El’s history, the synagogue’s congregants found it difficult to part from their familiar surroundings. Though their rabbi, H.G. Enelow, reminded them at the very last service that “when we leave our temple, we leave only the building,” teary-eyed members clustered in the lobby “as though hesitant to leave for the last time,” an eyewitness reported.

Fast-forward to 2013. I heard echoes of Enelow’s gentle admonition at Lincoln Square Synagogue’s farewell service only a few weeks ago, when Sherwood Goffin, the beloved cantor who has been with the congregation since its origins, reassured a standing-room-only crowd that Lincoln Square Synagogue was not giving up the ghost or relinquishing its memories, but simply moving down the block to a new and much improved facility.

For more than 40 years, Lincoln Square Synagogue had called a travertine-clad building on Amsterdam Avenue and 69th Street its home. When it opened its doors in 1970, its sanctuary-in-the round was considered rather daring, especially for an Orthodox congregation. As much a social statement as an architectural one, its unusual geometry held out, and made manifest, a vision of inclusiveness that drew thousands of young American Jews.

Some architectural critics were not so beguiled. The AIA Guide to New York City made the following observation: “The theaters of nearby Lincoln Center set the travertine tone for the area, and this mannered, curvy, articulated synagogue picks up the cue.” So far, so good. It then went on to note — rather snarkily, I should add — that inasmuch as the synagogue was adjacent to a bank, “the two together seem to be making an inadvertent comment about money changers at the temple.”

Ironically enough, one man’s snark turned out to be another’s good fortune. The congregation’s decision in the 1980s to purchase the property next door — “to buy the bank,” as the fund-raising campaign was colloquially called — enabled it not only to accommodate a steadily growing number of congregants, but also to assemble a very nice, and increasingly attractive, piece of real estate.

Years later, when developers came a’calling, Lincoln Square Synagogue availed itself of the opportunity to sell the property and, well, you know the rest of the story: A cherished building comes down, and a new one takes its place, while history looks on and waits.


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