BY TEQUILA MINSKY | The Lower East Side was home to about a half-million Jewish immigrants a century ago. About 350 synagogues — congregations in 70 discrete prayer spaces — dotted the neighborhoods south of 14th St. Some of these spaces were called shtiebelekh or shtiebels, just one or two rooms set aside for prayers, others were grand buildings like Eldridge Street Synagogue. In between were tenement shuls; synagogues built within the property line, often, the size of a row house/brownstone — narrow and long — sandwiched between other buildings. The last of these shuls above Houston St. closed in April, its space leased for luxury condo development. Its sacred, two-story ark, which housed the Torah, seemed destined for Demolition Depot.
But this historic religious relic, integral to the Orthodox synagogue’s building, was saved by Lower Manhattan’s newest Jewish congregation, Tamid, The Downtown Synagogue. Liberal and progressive, the congregation only conducts Friday night Sabbath services once a month at a church, St. Paul’s 9/11 Chapel.
Architect Jason Friedman evaluated the 100-year-old, Mesertiz Shul at 415 E 6th St. for his firm, which is converting the interior space into condos. He saw the Torah cabinet built into an ornate oak wall carving of panels and other adornment. In an Ashkenazi style of the time, though made-in-America, it was inscribed with Hebrew and Yiddish words, a relic of the old world.
Friedman, a Financial District resident, had attended High Holiday services at Downtown Synagogue (distinct from a now-defunct, similarly-named synagogue). He called Rabbi Darren Levine, its founder, to see if a home for the ark could be found.
As it happens, Tamid was in the process of creating a new ark and called into service an expert from this small congregation, Salvo Stoch, who imports rare items from around the world. Stoch evaluated the ark and determined it could be safely extracted, stored properly, and retrofitted for Tamid’s ark.
Meseritz’s Rabbi Peseach Ackerman, who died Friday at 84, was relieved. There would be a future for the ark with a new, growing Jewish congregation that needed it. For all, it seemed like b’shert, or destiny.
Climbing scaffolding in the dusty and paint-chip laden space, on Monday, April 28, Rabbi Levine and a small crew began the dismantling.
“It was put together with hammers and screws, said the rabbi, “and that’s what we used. Each of the right and left panels took an hour to remove.”
They used crowbars to pry the segments off the walls — 30 pieces, roughly 450 pounds of oak carvings, which had been glued on.
During their labors, Rabbi Levine reached into the cabinet of the ark and discovered, to his amazement, a Torah in the corner. The shul’s rabbi vaguely recalled this second Torah, tucked away with some smoke and water damage after a fire, some 40 years before.
It took two days of delicate work and a lot of sweat to complete the dismantling, the pieces carefully wrapped and taken to a storage facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Tamid hopes to someday restore the ark in a permanent synagogue Downtown.
Rabbi Levine presented the Torah, which he also hopes to restore, at his Shabbat service — held at St. Paul’s, that Friday night. Stoch’s daughter, Sophie, who celebrated her Bat Mitzvah last year, held the scroll for all to see.
With relatively few Jewish religious institutions in Lower Manhattan, Rabbi Levine felt the need for a spiritual home, a synagogue, and started Tamid, Downtown, with about 55 other families a year ago.
Levine had been at JCP (The Jewish Community Project), a Jewish school and center in Tribeca, for six years as its founding executive director, following a stint at 1,500-member Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side.
Rabbi Levine realized early on that Tamid needed a place to worship and thought of the light-infused St. Paul’s Chapel, across from the World Trade Center. Turns out that a fellow neighborhood basketball dad, who the rabbi knew on the courts for two years as Mark (but didn’t know his profession or title), was Reverend Mark Buzzuti-Jones, his contact at Trinity Church, which came to provide St. Paul’s Chapel to Tamid for worship, gratis.
The music component of services is led by renowned musician Basya Schechter, the front woman of the band Pharaoh’s Daughter and a Lower Manhattan resident.
During the May service in which the Torah was presented, Schecter’s blend of Hebrew and middle-eastern music, accompanied by guitar and percussion with Schecter singing and sometimes playing the oud, stirred the congregation. Inspiring music was just what the membership wanted. Jamie Propp, a founding member of the congregation, nudged a friend during the service and whispered, “It’s like going to a Friday concert.”
In the middle of the service, the worshipers got up, joined hands, and danced around the chapel for to celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath. “It ignites and unites the congregation as community,” Propp said.
“Tamid is in its infancy,” he added, explaining the once-a-month service. “You have to crawl before you walk. A number of members aren’t used to going to services. There’s a lot to organize when you’re starting a new congregation. And, it’s about building community.”
They also push the geographic boundaries of their neighborhood.
“We have bi-monthly book discussions at Pushcart Café on E. Broadway,” Rabbi Levine notes, pointing out, “Do you know there is no liberal presence in the (below Houston) Lower East Side? And, there are a lot of young families moving into the area.”
The word Tamid means eternal, taken from “ner tamid” — the eternal light that hangs above the ark in the synagogue. In a year, the congregation has nearly doubled to 100 families.
“We are an easy on-ramp to participate,” said Rabbi Levine. “We’ve taken a lot of risks and experimented with new and fresh ideas.”