If you think you’ve seen more guys in suits walking in and out of Lower East Side buildings lately, it’s probably not your imagination. Real estate insiders say interest in the neighborhood has skyrocketed this summer. The reason is simple: the impending approval of the sweeping Seward Park residential and retail development plan. Unsurprisingly, developers are hoping to snap up properties around the seven acre development parcel as quickly (and as cheaply) as they possibly can. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that there’s been renewed interest of late in one of the LES’s most neglected historic sites — the shuttered Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue at 60 Norfolk Street.
The distressed building sits right in the middle of the Seward Park development area. Interestingly, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s legendary spiritual leader, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, led a successful effort in 1967 to designate the Gothic Revival structure as a New York City landmark. 1967 was the year that almost every other Seward Park building was bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. But now, 45 years later, neglect and decay might accomplish what the bulldozers did not.
For many years, the building has been on a downward spiral. After a a wind storm that blew out a window in 1997 and a fire in 2001, the synagogue’s interior was badly damaged. Today the roof leaks. Chunks of the ceiling have fallen onto the floor of the sanctuary. Four years ago, Rabbi Oshry’s successor (and son-in-law) – Rabbi Mandl Greenbaum – made the decision to close Beth Hamedrash Hagadol for safety reasons. The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy stepped in to help save the synagogue, but for a variety of reasons, that effort was unsuccessful, in spite of commitments from government entities for close to $1 million in restoration funds. Now, as a last resort, the rabbi says he’s turned to real estate developers to save one of the Lower East Side’s most significant historic sites.
Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was the oldest congregation of Russian Jews in this country. The building was built in 1850 as a Baptist church (some of its congregants later founded Riverside Church). The synagogue bought 60 Norfolk Street in 1885; notably the congregation was led by Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York City. Rabbi Oshry, an internationally known scholar and a Holocaust survivor, led the synagogue for 50 years, before his death in 2003.
It was this illustrious history that prompted the Jewish Conservancy, an arm of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, to prevent the synagogue’s demise. As you can see from these 2008 photos, the building has seen better days.
Four years ago, the Conservancy prepared this video (available on YouTube) to raise awareness about the synagogue’s condition. The last three photos in the sequence posted above are still images from that video. Early fundraising efforts were successful. Grants were awarded from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the U.S. Department of Education and other government entities. A structural analysis concluded restoration would cost about $4.5 million.
A couple of years ago, UJC Executive Director Joel Kaplan (who departed the organization some time ago) told us enough money was available to, at least, stabilize the building and repair the leaking roof. The ultimate plan was not to reopen Beth Hamedrash Hagadol as a full-scale synagogue (everyone acknowledged there was no need for another large house of Jewish worship on the Lower East Side). Instead, the vision was to create a Jewish community center – a gathering place – and to house the Conservancy’s visitor center in a portion of the building.
Laurie Tobias Cohen, the Jewish Conservancy’s executive director, said in a recent interview that her organization was eager to work with Rabbi Greenbaum on the restoration effort. Unfortunately, she indicated, the preliminary plans unraveled. In the years after the initial grants were awarded, the synagogue went about applying for non-profit status with the State of New York, a process that took a long time. As the economic recession took hold, Cohen added, grants were rescinded.
Rabbi Greenbaum said he “worked hand-in-hand with the Conservancy to acquire the funds to make the visitor center and to restore the building.” It was a big blow, he acknowledged, when the grants were pulled back. Last year, he began conversations with developers about purchasing the building. In the rabbi’s ideal scenario, the synagogue would be restored and redeveloped for residential use and a portion of the building would be retained by Beth Hamedrash Hagadol for a small sanctuary and, perhaps, a religious school. “I have an obligation to the founders to make sure religious services continue,” he said.
The problem, Greebnaum said, is that every prospective buyer who has toured the building so far has been scared off by the shear amount of work that would be required to renovate the 160-year old structure. He speculated that it would likely cost a lot more than $4.5 million to make the repairs and to convert the building to condos. The developers, he suggested, have concluded that the undertaking simply does not make economic sense. Greenbaum added that he’s still determined to find a partner willing to take on the difficult project.
Lower East Side historian Joyce Mendelsohn is distressed that a site which means so much to the neighborhood’s Jewish legacy is being “allowed to deteriorate.”
“Over the past few years, the leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has refused to consider alternate income-producing use for the building, while retaining the synagogue downstairs — perhaps a cultural and performing arts center or a kosher catering hall — preferring to neglect the structure to the point of imminent collapse,” she said. It would be very sad, Mendelsohn added, if Beth Hamedrash Hagadol met the same fate as the first Roumanian synagogue on Rivington Street, which collapsed in 2006 and was later demolished.
Greenabum said suspicions among some neighborhood preservationists that he’s not dedicated to saving the synagogue are unfounded. “I have been connected to the synagogue for 20 years… it is an historic site. I don’t want to see it crumble.”
In recent weeks Michael Bolla and Ron Castellano, who converted the Jewish Daily Forward building to condos, have expressed interest in looking at the building. Bolla said he could envision the former synagogue as a single-family residence if the right buyer (one with deep pockets) could be found. Rabbi Greenbaum acknowledged the synagogue possesses air rights, but pointed out that the Landmarks Commission would need to approve any plan to build on top of the synagogue. There is an adjoining development parcel behind the synagogue, but it is owned by the Chinese Planning Council. The rabbi said he has been told that organization will eventually build on the parcel, even though it’s only been used as a parking lot for the past few decades.
Meanwhile, some community members worry about the immediate future of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a city landmark also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In February, preservation activist Linda Jones filed a complaint about the building’s condition with the Landmarks Commission. She has not received a response.
Rabbi Greenbaum said he’s happy to speak with anyone with ideas about the future of the synagogue. The phone number for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is 212-674-3330.
Read a followup to this story here.