One hundred and twenty years of Jewish history on Manhattan’s Lower East Side came to a tragic ending on Sunday night, as fire destroyed Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, one of the oldest synagogues in New York. For hours, smoke billowed above the neighborhood, once the heart of Jewish life in the city, and residents gathered to watched as the New York Fire Department battled the blaze that engulfed the building.
The Gothic revival structure on Norfolk Street was built in 1850 as a Baptist Church and purchased in 1885 to become the first Eastern European congregation founded in New York City. The synagogue was closed by the congregation in 2007, and the fire destroyed the hopes of community members and local historical societies which have been raising funds for the necessary restorations. It is unclear what caused the fire.
“I am devastated,” said Rabbi Benzi Saydman, who has been involved with the efforts to rescue the synagogue. “BHH has been my family synagogue since 1870 when my great grandfather, Ben-Zion Meltsner of blessed memory, first immigrated to New York from Lithuania.”
“My great grandfather and all branches of the family were part of the BHH community,” he continued. “Though I grew up in California, I heard stories of shul life from my great aunt, Tante Sadie of blessed memory. Her father, Ben-Zion Meltsner, was president of the shul in the early years of the 20th century. She lived with us and she remembered how all the ladies ‘got farpitzed’ on the holidays, wearing hats and furs,” he said, using the Yiddish word for putting on one’s best clothes.
“BHH was the shul where my great grandfather was president, the shul where my grandmother and Tante Sadie grew up, the shul I proudly brought my daughter to visit. The shul we helped rescue as a family is destroyed,” lamented Saydman.
Michelle Sitzer remembers the time when the synagogue was still operational, with minyans taking place two or three times a day. “It was a very vibrant Orthodox community,” she says of the congregation, which has since dispersed among the dozen other synagogues in the neighborhood. “This synagogue was part of the community. There is nothing left, the roof is gone, the inside is gone. It’s sad to see history of the Lower East Side literally go down in flames.”
The residents of the neighborhood have long been aware of the decline of the historic landmark. There are 12 or 13 synagogues in the community, and although it is not what it once was, Sitzer spoke fondly of the neighborhood. “It’s friendly, like a small town within the big city,” she said. “You can still send your kids to play at the park at night.”
The nearby Eldridge Street Synagogue was recently renovated, and some residents thought that the fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol could have been prevented. A Jewish gentlemen who declined to give his name paced the street as fireman rushed to clear residents gathered in a small park near the synagogue. “It’s negligent that they didn’t take the steps to prevent what happened,” he said unhappily.
As the fire raged on, a heavy cloud of smoke hovered above the Lower East Side. Tom Poutier was driving into Manhattan from Brooklyn with his aunt, a historian, when they saw it. She immediately suggested that the landmark synagogue might be the sight of the fire. “I think it’s an awful tragedy for any house of worship to be destroyed in any way,” he said.