The Bialystoker Nursing Home on East Broadway closed more than five years ago, but even after the last patients were transferred to other locations, the center continued to house significant artifacts representing Jewish life on the Lower East Side dating from the 1930s. In preparation for the gut renovation of the city landmark, however, many of these items were recently removed for safe keeping.
A local preservation organization, Friends of the Lower East Side, has been working for the past few years to retrieve memorial plaques, religious books and other sacred objects before a long-anticipated condo conversion got underway. The group led a successful campaign to landmark the exterior of the Art Deco building at 228 East Broadway in 2013.
When the property was sold in November, a leader of Friends of the LES, Linda Jones, spoke with the new owner about providing access to the organization. That owner, Rob Kaliner, agreed. During the past several weeks, items were surveyed and catalogued, and in many cases donated to libraries and other organizations dedicated Jewish-American history.
The Bialystoker property served as a nursing home for 80 years, but it was also the headquarters of a landsmanshaft (Yiddish for a mutual aid society). The founders were immigrants from Bialystok, an industrial city in Poland. According to Gary Ambrose, a former nursing home board member, there were well over one-thousand memorial plaques on the walls of the Bialystoker facility. Ambrose helped facilitate their transfer to the nearby Bialystoker Synagogue, an institution that shared a name with the nursing home but which was not legally affiliated. There were 15 crates, weighing in total more than a ton. In an interview, Amrose said, “We felt we had a moral responsibility (to preserve the plaques). It’s a legacy that needs to be maintained.”
Rabbi Zvi Romm of the Bialystoker Synagogue, explained, “We will hang the plaques in our synagogue to serve as a memorial to those individuals. We will also recite a special Kaddish each day in our synagogue in their memory. We view it as a privilege to be able to memorialize these individuals who, like our synagogue, had a connection to Bialystok.”
It was less obvious what to do with many other items inside the building. Over a period of a couple of weeks, Dr. Elissa Sampson of Friends of the Lower East Side and her husband, Professor Jonathan Boyarin, sifted through a large number of religious books (in Hebrew) and secular books (in Yiddish). They are both affiliated with the Jewish Studies Program at Cornell University (Boyarin is director, Sampson is a visiting scholar and lecturer).
Due to water damage, many of the books were destroyed. In accordance with Jewish tradition, they were buried in a cemetery, with the help of Pinters Hebrew Bookstore in Borough Park. The Jewish Studies program at Columbia University was given first pick of the texts. They were placed in the care of Associate Professor Rebecca Kobrin, author of the 2012 book, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora. Over the years, she has played an important role in documenting the building and the landsmanshaft. Books were also donated to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the National Jewish Book Center and Cornell. A crystal chandelier was taken to a local thrift shop, with the proceeds from its sale benefitting a Lower East Side charity. Benches from two synagogues were donated to Big Reuse.
During the cataloguing, some items were sent directly to family members. For example, a plaque in memory of the great Yiddish actor, Pesach Burstein, was mailed to the family. The descendants of David Sohn, the Bialystoker Center’s co-founder, retrieved a portrait from the building and looked through other items.
Rob Kaliner of the Ascend Group and his partners are preparing to convert the nursing home to condos and to build one or two residential towers on adjacent properties. He has offered to purchase air rights from the neighboring Seward Park Cooperative. Residents will vote on that $46.5 million offer in the next couple of months.