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Al Orensanz, Longtime Director of Orensanz Center, Has Died at the Age of 74

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Photos from the archives of the Angel Orensanz Foundation.

Al Orensanz, the beloved director of the Angel Orensanz Center, died this past Saturday at the age of 74.

Brothers Al and Angel Orensanz, the Spanish-American sculptor, rescued the former Anshe Chesed Synagogue at 172 Norfolk St. in 1986. They restored the historic building, which dates to 1850, and turned it into a spectacular venue for special events and a center of cultural life on the Lower East Side.

Al Orensanz served as director of the center for the past 30 years.  He was a sociologist and published author. In the past few years, he was working on a novel about the working class and immigrants in Brooklyn in the 1990s. Orensanz was also nearly finished with a history book about the Norfolk Street building and its relationship to the always-changing Lower East Side. But in the neighborhood, he’ll always be remembered for those heroic efforts to save the former synagogue from the wrecking ball.

In The Synagogues of the Lower East Side (2012), Gerald R. Wolfe wrote:

The successful repurposing of the building was accomplished despite great odds and at huge expense, and is now recognized as a major contribution to the growth of the neighborhood, the city, and the art world in general. In 2009, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields awarded a Certificate of Merit to the Angel Orensanz Foundation. The Orensanz brothers have successfully reinvented a landmark building that shows the layering of time and of its various congregations, rather than one that pretends a pristine restoration from a specific date or era.

Al Orensanz with Al Pacino and Maria Neri, who has taken on many operational duties at the center in recent years.
Al Orensanz with Al Pacino and Maria Neri, who has taken on many operational duties at the center in recent years.
Al and Angel Orensanz.
Al and Angel Orensanz.

The archives of the Angel Orensanz Center contain a rich history of the building and documentation of its many events. Here are some excerpts shared with us yesterday specific to Al Orensanz’s vision for the cultural institution:

From the early 1990s, Dr. Orensanz, a beloved member of his Lower East community, opened the doors of the Angel Orensanz Foundation to a wide range of community events and together with Maria Neri started to organize and host memorable theater, opera and concert events. He also forged alliances with local and international cultural institutions of major importance (MoMa/PS1, Goethe House, PS 122, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Whitney Museum, The Italian Cultural Institute, New York University; Columbia University and Princeton University; the National Russian Museum of St. Petersburg and the Royal Shakespeare Co. of London; The World Council of Peoples for the UN, the United Jewish Council, the American Academy in Rome, the Hungarian Cultural Institute, The Schinkel Foundation, the Vision Festival to name a few.) From the early days, among the many events he brought to the foundation Dr. Orensanz was most proud of the conference with Jacques Derrida at his last visit to New York, Elie Wiesel’s panel conversation about memory, readings by Maya Angelou, Norman Mailer, E.L.Doctorow, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem, Edward P. Jones and the memorial of Gregory Corso. He cherished the opportunity to listen to a duet by Alicia Keys and Lou Reed at a Clive Davis event and Bela Bartok’s Concerto streamed live from Budapest on huge screens on the anniversary of the composer’s death in New York.  He understood the potentials of the outstanding acoustics and multi-purpose flexibility of the building that showcased Philip Glass concerts, Vision Festival events, DJ Snooky, as part of the first Performa festival, Bill Morrison with his epic Decasia and could also accommodate the filming of A Huey P. Newton Story by Spike Lee, and Alexander McQueen’s first fashion show in New York… The list has no end and these early events established the space as one of the most glorious venues of the city. In the last years of the 20th century Dr. Orensanz supported the forming of the Shul of New York, a young egalitarian Jewish congregation by inviting them to have their Shabbat ceremonies in the building. As a tradition now they return each year to building for their High Holiday celebrations with followers that fill the main space and the balcony. With relentless energy and devotion Dr. Orensanz promoted the work of his brother, the sculptor and visual artist Angel Orensanz, by organizing exhibitions in the US and abroad, publishing catalogues and books about Angel’s work, and all the while preserving and exhibiting his work in the building’s museum.

In 2014, portions of the Orensanz Center became destabilized, forcing the closure of the building for many months. Dr. Orensanz was determined to reopen the facility, which he eventually did after repairs were made.

According to a statement from the Center, Angel Orensanz “will step in as executive director for daily operations of the foundation and keep the doors open for future events in loving memory of Al Orensanz’s generous spirit.”

A wake will be held tomorrow, Thursday, July 28, from 4-9 p.m. at Redden’s Funeral Home, 325 West 14th St. (between 8th ad 9th avenues). The funeral takes place Friday at 10 a.m. at Most Holy Redeemer Church, 173 East 3rd St. (between Avenues A and B). A Lower East Side memorial will take place at a later time.

Here’s a short documentary about Al Orensanz from the Lower East Side Biography Project.

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