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Manhattan’s iconic synagogue marks 100 years with a faceflit

8 september 2012

When this synagogue was constructed in 1913, it was one of hundreds of Jewish houses of worship here on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Today, the Stanton Street Shul is one of the last buildings of its kind, but with a new grant for repairs and a new generation of parishioners, there’s hope that this building will continue to serve this community for years to come.


Opened a century ago by a group of Jewish immigrants from modern-day Ukraine, the Stanton Street Shul is wedged into a lot just 20 feet wide and 100 feet long.


Stanton Street Shul worshipper Jonathan Boyarin:


“It’s practically the last functioning synagogue among what we now call tenement shuls, not because people lived in them like crowded tenements but because they’re in these very long narrow lots which produce some very real constraints on the architecture.”


Anthropologist and lawyer Jonathan Boyarin has been worshipping here since 1983. His book, Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul, documents the history of the building and its first parishioners.


Stanton Street Shul worshipper Jonathan Boyarin:


“They brought their landzeit, people from their hometown and their relatives with them, and they wanted to socialize and they wanted to share the burdens of the new life here. So it was very common for them to form hometown societies, which might well include a synagogue.”


Though architecturally unorthodox, narrow synagogues like Stanton Street sprang up as the Jewish population in New York exploded at the turn of the 20th century.


Historian Antony Robins:


“The space is not like any old world synagogue that I’ve ever seen.”


Historian Anthony Robins is an expert on New York City’s architectural past.


Historian Antony Robins:


“The Lower East Side was once the world’s largest Jewish community and even in this area of the Lower East Side around Delancy Street there was a huge population, several hundred thousand Jews and hundreds of congregation and many buildings. And that’s all gone. But this building survives and that makes it a very important reminder of our past.”


Indeed, the Stanton Street Shul is one of the last functioning synagogues of its kind. And the building is beginning to show its age.


Rabbi Josh Yuter has presided over this congregation since 2008.


Rabbi Josh Yuter:


“You can either look at the walls and say, this place needs a lot of work, or you can look around and say, this is a very special place. When people come here to pray especially on say Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when they might not pray elsewhere, they have this palpable feeling that this is a synagogue their grandparents could have prayed in and possibly did depending on where they lived.”


Ironically, it’s the building’s unique architecture that has led to some of its deterioration.


Colleen Heemeyer, New York Landmarks Conservancy:


“When this shul was built with the remnants of a tenement building the rear part of the building was not structurally attached to the rest of the building thus the source of the cracking.”


Colleen Heemeyer is with the New York Landmarks Conservancy. That organization has offered the shul USD 30 thousand for structural repairs -- but also some technical know-how.


Colleen Heemeyer, New York Landmarks Conservancy:


“Very often congregations are struggling both financially and in terms of technically how do we take care of this building and in cases where congregations want to do the right thing and don’t know how, we can step in and provide support.”


Meanwhile, the shul has begun attracting new worshippers anxious to preserve the space as a unique center for worship and learning -- people like 31 year old Rebecca Friedman.


Stanton Street Shul worshipper Rebecca Friedman:


“I would say actually of all the shuls in the neighborhood has been moving forward the most in terms of progressive ideas about Jewish ritual, and just openness to the new people coming in the neighborhood.”


And even if you’re not here to worship, historian Anthony Robins says a building like this is an ideal place to learn about the history of New York.


Historian Antony Robins:


“New York is a great immigrant city. The immigrant story is the history of New York City and a building like this keeps alive some of that feeling. You can walk in here and feel that you are back in an immigrant setting from 1913 when it was built. That’s a very rare thing and one that’s worth preserving.”


Over the last hundred years the Lower East Side has undergone tremendous changes. What was once the center of Jewish life is now a home to immigrant groups and religious communities from around the world. But the Stanton Street Shul is still here and still a testament to a vibrant Jewish community that will hopefully persist well into the future.


Stephen Fee, JN1, New York


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