BY Aline Reynolds
The long-awaited restoration of the Museum and Synagogue at Eldridge Street is finally complete. A large stained-glass window, installed earlier this month on its eastern wall, marked the end of a 24-year-long overhaul of the building.
The circular window features the Star of David and has a striking pattern of golden stars against a shimmering blue backdrop.
“This is indeed the crown of our jewel, the glorious capstone of 25 years of effort,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, the museum’s founder. “In multiple ways, this restoration has become a model of how to save our sacred heritage, how to advance preservation, first building block of sustainable development.”
She and others on the museum’s Board of Trustees celebrated the milestone at a gala held last Thursday evening at the synagogue. Among the speakers were Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, and the window’s designers, artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.
“The synagogue has been a center of life for so many generations who settled on the Lower East Side… and this is a spectacular contemporary window,” Bloomberg said, who helped secure $6 million for the renovation.
Bloomberg alluded to religious tolerance in light of the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, a project that he vehemently supports.
“I just wanted to say if there’s any group that should be supportive of people’s right to pray… it’s the Jews who are here in this country who have a history of being persecuted,” he said.
The synagogue, he added, has done an “exceptional” job at reinforcing tolerance among its members. “This building really reminds us how far we’ve come over the last 123 years,” he said.
The mayor traces his own roots back to the Lower East Side: his maternal grandmother was born on Mott Street, about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue.
Gopnik, the gala’s keynote speaker, talked about the history of the synagogue, which dates back to 1887, and the many obstacles Jews have faced worldwide to freely practice their religion.
“A bunch of Lower East Side merchants decided to come together and build a great big building in honor of their faith,” which still stands today, he said. “The synagogue symbolizes that kind of resilience.”
In reference to the stained-glass window, Gopnik said, “A window is in its very nature a thing of enormous fragility. But it’s deeply rooted in tradition… and in the deepest sense a suggestion of faith.”
The museum’s executive director, Bonnie Dimun, praised Smith and Gans for their creation, and said she was taken aback when she first laid eyes on the window. “The 1200 pieces of glass started to move – as I sat there, and the hours went by, I was mesmerized at how a piece of glass could be alive,” she said.
Smith explained how the window represents cutting-edge lamination techniques. “It’s the first time a studio in America has produced such a large piece of glass with this new technology, so it actually brings new technology to this country,” she told the crowd.
“It’s been such a joy to spend so much time in this room… and we hope our window is a reflection of it,” said the emotional Gans.
Smith and Gans were then honored with glass plaques, unused fragments of their stained-glass window.
The presence of the new window in a historic, 19th-century building is a marriage of the old and the new.
“I think it’s a wonderful symbol of what’s already going on here – the fact that this is a beautiful, historic site, but it’s a site with new life and new meaning for people of all backgrounds,” said Amy Stein Milford, the museum’s deputy director.
Many in the crowd gazed at the stained glass during the talks.
“It’s eye-catching, and it fills the space nicely,” said 20-year-old Lee Kreindel, who prays at the synagogue and volunteers at special events there.
“I’m very excited by it,” said Board of Trustees member Mark Mirsky, who said he grew tired of staring at the four rectangular glass tablets that were previously embedded in the Eastern wall.
The building’s original rose stained during Sabbath glass window shattered during a 1938 hurricane, according to the lore. The clear glass tablets, which served as substitutes for the window since the 1940s, now sit in the synagogue’s Family History Center, on the ground floor of the building, which has exhibits of first-generation Americans’ journeys to America.
The new stained-glass window is the masterly finishing touch to substantial interior fixes of the space, which sources say were imperative. More than 18,000 public and private benefactors nationwide contributed to the project, which cost around $18.5 million.
“It was in awful shape before,” said Mirsky, who has attended Sabbath at the synagogue since 1982. “When I came in here, there were pigeons flying through the roof… and the dust was a least an inch thick.” Mirsky also recalls one of the windows falling out of its framing in the mid-1990s.
“It was a wreck – we couldn’t pray in those conditions,” said his son, Tsvi Sitzer, a freshman at the New York Institute of Technology.
Synagogue staff members realized this, but had to decide how to go about updating the space while preserving its original architecture.
“It was the classic preservation dilemma,” Stein said. “The motto was not to go back to its original grandeur, that it had to be just what it was in 1887, but rather [to] let the building tell its story.”
Starting in the mid-1980s, repairs were made to the building’s roof and walls, and new heating and lighting systems were put in place. The restoration was done in several phases as outside funding trickled in, Milford said.
“I’m looking forward to finally praying upstairs,” in the main synagogue room, Tsvi Sitzer said. Previously, he and his friends would pray in small rooms on the ground floor of the building.
Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of only 15 on the Lower East Side that has active Sabbath services, according to Board of Trustees member David Sitzer.
“Many people said to me, ‘why are they raising funds for a synagogue basically outside the Jewish community?’ he said. “Because it’s such a beautiful building, and it would be a shame to let it go.”