Inside Jewish Sacred Sites with the LES Conservancy

The LES Jewish Conservancy's new visitor center, 400 Grand Street.

Last month, we reported the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy is preparing to open a new Visitor Center at 400 Grand Street later this summer.  If you walk by the storefront, formerly Ruby’s Fruits, you might notice a poster promoting the Conservancy’s new “Insider Tours,” abbreviated versions of their more detailed neighborhood walking excursions. Recently, we were invited to experience the tours for ourselves.

The first tour, “Crossing Delancey” is offered Thursday afternoons. Participants see the Angel Orensanz Center, Congregation Chasam Sopher (on Clinton Street), as well as Streit’s Matzoh Factory and Economy Candy. “Bialystoker the Beautiful,” a Sunday morning tour,” includes (of course) the Bialystoker Synagogue, the padlocked Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and East Broadway’s Shtiebl Row.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street, is an important stop on the tours, but also the focal point of the Conservancy’s preservation efforts. The synagogue, which has occupied the building since 1885, is the oldest orthodox congregation of Russian Jews in the United States.  Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, who headed the congregation for 50 years, was also the religious leader of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania during WWII. A hidden archive of the ghetto’s history is featured at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Conservancy has been raising money for the past several years to restore the synagogue, which suffered serious water damage in a 2001 fire.  While the Grand Street Visitor outpost will provide much-needed visibility in the near-term, the long-range goal is to establish a permanent Visitor Center inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Laurie Tobias Cohen, the Conservancy’s executive director, said there’s also been talk of setting up a kosher catering facility in the building.  The first phase of the restoration – stabilizing the 1200 seat synagogue, is expected to begin soon.

Angel Orensanz Center.

There are, of course, quite a few walking tours offered on the Lower East Side.  The Conservancy, part of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, highlights its strong relationships with the neighborhood’s synagogues and cultural institutions. On the Thursday tour, visitors are able to walk inside the Orensanz Center, the oldest surviving building in the city built specifically as a synagogue. If you’re lucky, as I was, you might even get to chat with Al Orensanz, who’s tender loving care keeps the Gothic Revival-style event space in pristine condition.

Bialystoker Synagogue

On Sundays, your guide will take you inside the Bialystoker, where you’ll see the synagogue’s intricately painted ceiling, restored in 1988.

Stanton Street Shul.

Preservation and renewal are constant themes on the tours.  In some cases, the Conservancy has helped pay for synagogue restoration. The Stanton Street Shul, which came close to extinction a few years ago, has undergone a remarkable transformation thanks, in part, to Conservancy funding.  In other instances, private donors have saved sacred sites (Chasam Sopher, for example).

That’s not to say synagogues are not in danger on the Lower East Side. The roof collapse of the First Roumanian-American Congregation on Rivington Street in 2006 was proof of that.  The plight of Young Israel on East Broadway illustrates the pressures many cash strapped congregations are under due to gentrification.

However, Joel Kaplan, UJC executive director, told me earlier this week he believes the situation has stabilized. Nearly all congregations on the LES are financially burdened with the costs of maintaining large, aging buildings. But preservation efforts in the past decade, he said, have relieved a lot of pressure. In spite of perceptions to the contrary, there’s still a significant Jewish population downtown (in excess of 50,000 people, according to some estimates).  This means there are a lot of people in the neighborhood determined to protect what the Conservancy calls “the cradle of American Jewish civilization.”

Cohen said the “insider tours” are meant to make the Conservancy accessible to a wider variety of people – whether they live in the neighborhood or are visiting from out of town. She hopes the 90 minute mini-versions will entice visitors to try a full scale 3-hour tour. They cost $12 and will be offered through December 30th. Right now there’s a coupon available on the Conservancy’s web site offering any two insider tours for the price of one.