Eldridge Street Synagogue: What Makes It Special?

The Eldridge Street Synagogue was renovated over a period of twenty years at a cost of twenty million dollars. People ask: "What makes this synagogue special? Wasn't the Lower East Side full of synagogues, with many still standing?"

The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the first synagogue built by East European Jews in the U.S. (1886). After escaping pogroms, ghettos, and forced army conscription, the founders of ESS wanted to express their newfound freedom in a grand way. The six-story structure rises majestically above the nearby tenements. The exterior is rich with exquisite mason work; bold Moorish Revival style arches are supported by marble pillars. Stars of David proudly displayed on the many stained glass synagogues windows announce a Jewish house of worship.

When ESS was built, the surrounding area in the LES was overcrowded, filthy, and dark. The synagogue sought to offer a place of refuge where the local residents could enter a different world. The synagogue was built with surrounding alleyways allowing light and air to come in from all sides. The huge barrel-vaulted ceiling can only be compared to the ceiling at The Metropolitan Museum of Art or Grand Central Station. Beneath the ceiling is a separate set of windows which gives the women in the gallery extra light. Each seat is numbered so that every worshiper will have their own space. There is an overabundance of lighting throughout the interior - the cantor's lectern has no less then 25 light bulbs. A huge Victorian chandelier hangs down in the center of the synagogue from a seventy-foot ceiling.

Engraved on the building facade is the main name of the synagogue, Adath Jeshurim ("congregation of the righteous"). The founding fathers wanted the synagogue to be open to all and did not use a town as part of its main name. All worshipers were encouraged to come in and enter a different world — a world of cleanliness, orderliness, and G-dliness. Eldridge Street Synagogue was not just replacing a home town shul; instead, it was a new world synagogue that would be central to the new Lower East Side community.

To accurately renovate the synagogue, The Eldridge Street Project went through the records of the synagogue board meetings to see precisely what their goals were. Everything has been restored to the original; all the stained glass was removed and repaired. The original benches have been restored and the stunning original ark made from walnut wood still has the original velvet cover from 1886. The Project could have gutted the interior and come up with a modern interpretation of Eldridge Street but that would be missing the point entirely. The greatness of this place is that it represents an old world — a world of hope, dreams and vision.

Groups that would like to take a tour of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, or a private tour of the Lower East Side that includes visiting the Eldridge Street Synagogue, can contact Timeline Touring. For information on our public tour of the Lower East Side conducted every Sunday afternoon, click here.

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