Jews across the Lower East Side are busy preparing for the start of Passover this evening. But at the Stanton Street Shul yesterday morning, there was another meaningful project in the works. Rabbi Aviad Bodner was receiving a special gift in memory of Ralph Feldman, a well-known member of the community – a local legend – who died in February.
Local artist Patti Kelly donated a beautiful stained glass Star of David window that was rescued decades ago from a former synagogue, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn, on East 7th Street. Feldman, a former New York City fire marshal and building owner, attended services at the Stanton Street Shul in recent years.
In an interview yesterday, Kelly said Feldman used to stop by her 8th Street studio to watch her restore the window, a painstaking process that spanned several years. “He got the biggest kick (out of the fact that) this Irish Catholic girl was doing the restoration” of a Jewish artifact,” she said. After Feldman’s memorial service in February, which was led by Rabbi Bodner, Kelly decided it would only be fitting to offer the window to the Stanton Street Shul.
The rabbi said the piece will become a prominent feature in the continuing restoration of the synagogue building. In the next several months, he explained, a new campaign will be launched to raise the necessary funds for the project. When those plans start to take shape, it will be decided exactly where the stained glass window will go. It hung over the alter of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn, which was long ago converted to a private residence.
The photos you see here were taken by Elissa Sampson, a longtime friend of Ralph Feldman. She recalled the day in 1982 in which he “literally prevented the Eighth Street Shul (located next door to his home) from burning down.” The experience turned the non-observant Jew into a shul-goer. In 1998, Feldman and local activist Clayton Patterson worked to save the synagogue from disrepair, but the congregation ending up selling the building anyway. That’s when Feldman started going to Stanton Street.
Kelly said Feldman, who bought and fixed up dozens of dilapidated buildings throughout the neighborhood, had a unique appreciation for his new shul, one of the last tenement synagogues remaining on the Lower East Side. Over the years, she rebuilt the window frame and designed the centerpiece element, which depicts the Ten Commandments. “My job,” she said, “is to hold on to the original integrity of the piece and to honor the original work.” Donating the piece, Kelly told us, “makes me feel good. It was the best way I could think of to honor our friendship.”
The relationship between Feldman and Kelly was a special one. Baruch Herzfeld, a close friend of Feldman, said they were kindred spirits — both tough New York characters who embodied all of the best characteristics of the Lower East Side’s artist community. Speaking of Kelly, Elissa Sampson added, “She is really giving something whose value is quite precious. It goes beyond the extraordinary. Patti deeply wants to inspire Ralph’s friends and family to also memorialize him in a way that gives back to community.”