Rebirth, and reunion, at historic Norfolk synagogue


By Jefferson Siegel

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah centers on the story of a lamp with enough oil for one day that ultimately burned for eight.

Another surprising tale of longevity is occurring at the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on Norfolk St. on the Lower East Side. In recent years, the temple suffered a series of setbacks, including eroding membership and interior damage from storms that soaked the partially exposed interior after the main window was blown out in a windstorm. Conditions were so bad that, in 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the structure an endangered historic site. Just when it seemed the synagogue’s flame was about to snuff out like the Hanukkah lamp, it has recently sparked back to life.

A historic preservation group, the Lower East Side Conservancy, recently took the initiative to help restore the synagogue to its former glory.

The building at 60 Norfolk St. was purchased in 1852 by a group of Russian and Polish immigrants. Housing the oldest Russian Orthodox Jewish congregation in the country, the structure was designated a landmark in 1967.

As a part of its rebirth, the synagogue hosted an unusual reunion last Sunday. More than 100 descendants of a Lithuanian Jewish family gathered for the first time in the synagogue’s basement space. They were cousins of the synagogue’s congregants from more than a century ago. Many were meeting each other for the first time.

“This is much more than a family reunion,” said Rabbi Ben-Zion Saydman, whose tireless research uncovered a diaspora of family members spread over 27 states and four countries. “I’ve been working on this genealogical project since I was in high school.” Saydman’s great-grandfather, whose name is listed on a worn plaque inside the sanctuary’s entrance, was the president of the synagogue at the turn of the last century. Saydman’s research uncovered nine branches of relatives descended from the Aug family of Telz in Lithuania.

Saydman stood on a platform in the middle of the room as crowds of children, parents and the elderly slowly filed in and took seats.

“The last time that there was any kind of gathering like this with all branches of the family was probably 130 years ago,” he observed.

In addition to meeting for the first time, family members had the chance to gather in their ancestral synagogue, where relatives began worshipping in 1871.

“The building is in great need of repair,” Saydman said as he looked around. “So, in addition to being a tremendous gathering, it’s also a fundraiser for the shul.”

City Councilmember Alan Gerson took time out from his vacation to welcome the extended Aug family and talk about the significance of the synagogue to the neighborhood.

“This is another step toward the continued rebirth and revitalization of the Lower East Side, as manifested by this magnificent edifice, this historic synagogue,” he declared.

“We see this as our signature project,” said Holly Kaye, a planning and development consultant of the conservancy. In nine years, the conservancy has raised over $4 million for over a dozen synagogues in the area. Most of the congregations had been unaware there was a source of funding for their capital needs. In addition to financial aid, the conservancy helps maintain the synagogues by finding other compatible uses for their underutilized facilities.

The conservancy came into existence when Kaye learned that a storm had blown out the synagogue’s main window. Having just returned from Venice and a tour of that city’s Jewish Ghetto neighborhood, Kaye understood the urgency of preserving the historical structures in her hometown. After consulting with colleague Joel Kaplan of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, she secured a $5,000 grant for immediate repairs.

“Here on the Lower East Side, we’ve still got 24 operating Jewish institutions and people think we’re all dusty-musty history,” she told Kaplan. At the same time, visitors were walking into the office of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District looking for information on the area’s long Jewish history and culture. The conservancy’s restoration, funding and educational initiatives took root.

Costs for the restoration of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol are estimated at $3.5 million. So far, $1 million has been raised, including $750,000 allocated in next year’s city budget to help fund a new visitors’ information center and community space. Initial funding will go primarily toward exterior work, including restoration of outside doors, window and roof repairs, as well as interior plastering. The second, larger phase of work will target asbestos removal, structural stabilization, new floors and wiring and restoration of murals.

The conservancy has outlined a three-part plan for self-sufficiency once the restoration is completed. The central element will be the visitor’s center, stocked with informational materials and serving as a meeting point for walking tours. Workers will staff the center to assist tourists with answers on everything from the building’s history and the area to where to find the best bagels and knishes.

Part two of the plan will see space in the building set aside for a series of cultural programs, including permanent and rotating exhibitions. A meeting room will double as a venue for concerts and lectures.

The third portion will be the establishment of a community center for a neighborhood that is short of public meeting space.

Last Sunday, the synagogue’s Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum gave a tour of the spacious sanctuary. Silence infused the cavernous space and a musty smell mingled with dust. Soot covered the floor, the pews and the bimah — a platform in the middle of the space. The walls on either side of the ark — where the Torah scrolls were once stored until services were moved to the basement — were decorated with a mural. An intricate metal chandelier hung from a ceiling of flaking paint.

“It’s like building a new building within the boundaries of the old building,” Rabbi Greenbaum said, standing in a shaft of light streaming down from the large windows. He estimated that, depending on the success of fundraising and the pace of work, the restoration could finish in four years.

As he spoke, Rabbi Saydman was downstairs, projecting old photographs of Aug ancestors onto a screen. Two 10-year-old girls, Victoria Garner and Ranya Cooper, sat together watching. The pair met at camp this summer and became friends. When camp ended they went home, only to return to Sunday’s reunion to discover they were cousins.

The Lithuanian ambassador to the U.S., as well as Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, sent letters of greetings to the families. Many relatives arrived bearing photographs, which will be added to a database of over 10,000 documents documenting the Aug lineage.

“It’s magic that we’re here,” Rabbi Saydman marveled.