Roof collapse puts spotlight on crumbling synagogues


By Lincoln Anderson

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn visited the damaged First Roumanian-American Congregation last Thursday and pledged her support and that of the City Council to help the congregation recover from the disastrous roof collapse that has left the historic building’s future in jeopardy and the congregation homeless.

Quinn, who represents Chelsea and part of Greenwich Village, joined Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents this section of the Lower East Side, and Rabbis Shmuel and Ari Spiegel, in taking a quick look inside the crippled synagogue. They didn’t penetrate too far, but just looked from the threshold. Meanwhile, workers were busy removing the one-third of the roof that didn’t collapse.

Quinn said that after reading about the collapse in the newspapers, she wanted to show her support.

“This is a very historic and important synagogue,” Quinn told The Villager. “A place that has been in this community since the Civil War. A place that has offered shelter and solace to countless New Yorkers — we saw that after 9/11.”

The building, between Ludlow and Orchard Sts., dates from 1857 and was a Protestant church until the synagogue took it over in the 1880s. On 9/11 and in its aftermath, the congregation opened its doors to the community.

More plaster coating the pews at the Norfolk St. synagogue, once known as the “Great House of Study.”

Asked what specifically the Council can do to help the synagogue, Quinn said, “What exact help they need, they don’t know yet,” she said, adding, “Whatever help they need, we’ll provide.”

As for whether the Council might provide funds to help rebuild the synagogue, Quinn said, “It’s not at that point yet.” Gerson later added that there are issues of separation of church and state that would preclude the synagogue getting such funding.

Rabbi Shmuel Spiegel, the congregation’s officiating rabbi and one of three brothers who lead the synagogue, said they were first and foremost happy that residents in seven apartments in the building just to the west, 87 Rivington St., were last Thursday allowed to return to their homes, after the synagogue’s western wall was deemed sufficiently stable. Also, a Bangladeshi-run deli next to the synagogue that had been closed since the roof collapse also was allowed to reopen for business last Thursday.

The congregation is still working on recovering religious documents and an ornate ark from inside the building. The building is not landmarked, which means there is no roadblock to razing it if the cost and work needed to rebuild it are deemed prohibitive.

Rabbi Shmuel later said that Guide One, their insurance company, “is playing hardball. We have an attorney.”

After Quinn’s visit to the First Roumanian-American Congregation, the next stop was another nearby synagogue in need of repairs, Beth Hamedrosh Hagodel, at Norfolk and Broome Sts. Built in 1850, first a Baptist and then Methodist church, it was converted in 1885 to an Orthodox Russian Jewish synagogue that became known as “the Great House of Study.”

Seven years ago, the synagogue’s tall window above its main entranceway blew out in a windstorm. That misfortune led to the formation of the Lower East Side Conservancy, a group committed to restoring the Lower East Side’s historic synagogues and promoting the area’s Jewish cultural legacy.

Holly Kaye of the conservancy, the Rabbis Spiegel, Joel Kaplan of the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, Quinn, Gerson and District Leader David Weinberger toured the synagogue’s sanctuary, which is covered with plaster and pieces of ribbing fallen from the ceiling. Downstairs in the basement, a congregation of about 40 continues to meet regularly. Kaye explained that the conservancy plans to turn the sanctuary into a visitors center from which tours of the historic Lower East Side synagogues and other cultural attractions will be led.

“It has unbelievable potential,” Quinn said, admiring the sanctuary as they stood among the pews covered with debris.

The Norfolk St. visitors center is a $3 million project, with $1 million needed to secure the structure and another $2 million for systems, heating and fixing up the interior. In addition to the visitors center, the space is planned to include a program office for the conservancy, an exhibition space and interactive educational center.

The Council last year allocated $500,000 for the project, and Kaye said they want to secure that and hopefully add to it. Kaplan said they also hope to get funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

So far, the conservancy has raised $2 million for historic sacred sites on the Lower East Side, Kaye told The Villager afterwards.

So far, she said, a handful of historic synagogues are showing some signs of rebirth, such as Chasam Sopher on Clinton St., the Sixth St. Synagogue and the Stanton St. Shul.

“It’s not what it was like 100 years ago, but…” she said. “Ninety-five percent of all Jews in America came through the Lower East Side,” she noted, stressing the area’s enduring significance to Jews.

Now more than ever, there’s an urgent need to preserve the neighborhood’s historic synagogues, Kaye said.

“It was fine when we were a forgotten, gritty neighborhood 15 or 20 years ago,” she continued. “But with the rate of development in the neighborhood now….” Within view across Delancey St., a new luxury residential tower called Blue and shaped sort of like an old radio microphone from the 1940s is rising.

“This is the fulcrum of really all of them,” Kaye said of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodel. “We probably won’t be able to save all of them. And, unfortunately, the collapse of the roof [of the First Roumanian-American Congregation] serves to show how important it is to preserve them.”

Gerson said it’s unclear whether the Rivington St. congregation will repair its roofless building.

“I think the congregation will remain on Rivington St.,” he said. “Whether this structure remains or will be rebuilt remains to be seen.

“I think we need to convene a meeting on older churches, synagogues, because the city has many of these,” Gerson added. “They remain active, but the congregations don’t have the funding to keep them up.” The meeting would be later this spring, he said.

Gerson said the reason why the Norfolk visitors center is eligible for municipal funding is because the space has been taken over by a nonprofit, sectarian institution.

Speaking on Sunday night, Rabbi Shmuel said Morris Brenner, who survived Auschwitz as a 9-year-old but lost all his family in the Holocaust, said the devastation of the First Roumanian-American Congregation building reminded him of when the Nazis blew up the synagogue in his town in Poland, but then let them pray on the spot, instead of shooting them like they usually did.

“But he said he knows this synagogue will always be there,” Rabbi Shmuel said.