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Norfolk St. Synagogue Puts Demolition Plan on Hold

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Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk Street.

The Lo-Down has learned this morning that the leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol has decided, at least for the moment, to drop its bid to demolish the synagogue’s historic home at 60 Norfolk St.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission was notified on Friday that a hardship application seeking permission to tear down the distressed 1850 building was being put on hold, according to the synagogue’s rabbi, Mandl Greenbaum.

A short time ago, the rabbi told us he and the synagogue’s board of directors had decided to “suspend the application for three months to explore alternatives to demolition.”  Last December, the congregation filed papers with the landmarks board, arguing that there was no choice but to replace the deteriorating building with a new mixed-use complex, including apartments and a ground-floor shul.  Preservation groups have been mobilizing to prevent the move.

The rabbi had a change of heart last week following a lengthy meeting with Holly Kaye, a leader of the effort to save the synagogue from the wrecking ball and the founding director of the LES Jewish Conservancy.   In a phone interview this morning, she said, “We are very pleased (about this decision) and we are dedicated to working with the rabbi and the community to find a solution which satisfies the owners while preserving this incredibly important landmark.”    In the three hour meeting, Kaye said she and the rabbi had re-established “what had been a very strong relationship.”  During the past decade, the conservancy led a campaign to raise more than a million dollars for the restoration of the synagogue, which has been battered by fire, flood and years of neglect. Those funds were eventually rescinded or returned when the restoration effort stalled.

The first step will be bringing in an engineer who will make an assessment of the building’s current condition.  The preservation groups and the congregation will explore whether short-term repairs can stabilize the building.  Rabbi Greenabum said he is willing to consider any partnerships (possibly with yeshivas or other schools) for “adaptive re-use of the building.”  There is at least one interested party, a Jewish institution, that is talking with the synagogue.

From the moment the congregation first considered demolition, he said, “it was a very hard decision, not one that we took lightly.”  The priority, Greenbaum indicated, is making sure the “congregation can function” in the future.  The building has been shuttered since 2007. He intends to delay the hardship application for at least three months and is open to a longer period of time if talks with potential partners are fruitful.  “But we can’t let this go on forever,” he said.

A preservation coalition, Friends of the Lower East Side, has led the campaign to prevent demolition.  Nearly 600 people have signed an online petition.  The controversy was the subject of our February print magazine. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is the oldest synagogue of Russian Jews in this country.  Its building won city protection in 1967.


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  1. A sad, mislead campaign to preserve an empty shell. Or worse, revive it’s dying tradition of archaic thinking. It is 2013, sell the space stipulating a portion of the building to become a community center (or something similar.) Lets put a “do not resuscitate order” on these terminal houses of worship. (of any denomination)

  2. Thank you Holly and Rabbi Greenbaum! There has to be a solution that includes saving the building. Air rights for this shul are worth millions of dollars and can be transferred to the nearby sites that will be developed as part of SPURA. Saving this building is of critical importance. The congregation can continue to meet in the restored shul or, with the money raised by sale of air rights, can lease or buy another nearby site.

  3. The building is one of the most important sites of Eastern European Jewish life in America; it was the first Russian Jewish congregation. It became the synagogue that brought over the once and only New York City Chief Rabbi, Jacob Josephs. In more recent memory, it was led by R. Oshry who wrote about the Kovna ghetto during the Holocaust. The building, though in bad shape, is magnificent inside. It also had a prior life as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church. No one wants to preserve an empty shell or “archaic thinking.” This is about creative adaptive reuse so that the history of the neighborhood and of Lower Manhattan is not erased for another boring expensive condo. A sense of place is not just something that should be thrown out the window.

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