Ramth Orah had its modest beginnings in 1941 when a small group arrived in Manhattan from Luxembourg having escaped the Nazis. As luck would have it, there was a church - West Side Unitarian - being built on 110th Street since 1921. Unfortunately, they ran out of cash ten years into their project, and had to abandon the uncompleted church. It was here that the Orthodox congregation was able to find a home, purchasing the building in 1942. Today, the structure has been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Engaging in conversation with Barbara Gerber-Krasner, the president of Or Olam, I learned that they have not always been on 55th Street. The synagogue, founded in 1906, started out in a storefront on Second Avenue. The congregation, known then as B'nei Leive, came to its current site in 1916. The building dates from the 1870s, and was originally a Baptist church. Barbara explained that, though the ceiling is now "acoustical, " if one were to remove it they would see "the normal structure of a church ceiling. " Originally an Orthodox congregation, in 1966 it became Conservative, followed by the hiring of long time Rabbi Reuven Siegel, who served for over forty years. Upon his arrival, he brought the stain glass windows - representing the twelve tribes of Israel and other Jewish symbols - from the Bronx synagogue where he had been. The congregation remains Conservative and was renamed to Or Olam (Everlasting Light) in 2012. Today, the synagogue's focus is on their older congregants, "empty-nesters" in their 50s or 60s, and suburban transplants. "They want to be able to listen to an adult sermon, " Barbara explained. Though Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits leads weekly study classes on Torah and Jewish law where "everyone is welcome to attend, " Or Olam does not offer a children's education program. Instead, they encourage families to enroll in the courses offered through the 92nd Street Y. Generally speaking, Barbara characterized Or Olam as "a very open congregation. " A number of members are married to non-Jewish spouses who attend services with them, and Or Olam is home to an active LGBT community. Barbara told me, in no uncertain terms, that at Or Olam, "we don't have cliques. " New members are welcomed with open arms, and are often given aliyot - the opportunity to read from a Torah scroll in front of the congregation - their first time in the synagogue. Or Olam also offers financial assistance to younger congregants through a program called The Legacy Campaign, another way in which they hope to not have to turn anyone away. "So far we've been managing, " Barbara said. "We hope we can continue. "
Dating back to pre-Civil War days and formerly the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran church, this stately red brick structure has been a synagogue since 1940. A devastating piece of New York history happened in 1904 when a boat filled with 1200 German immigrant women and children from the original church perished in a fire on the East River. Today, it has a modern Orthodox congregation that offers services every day of the year.
Ezrath Israel was originally established as a Jewish Community Center in 1917 by the West Side Hebrew Relief Association, a group of Orthodox Jewish shop owners. The area was known for its busy steamship ports, however, the entertainment business eventually became one of the biggest industries in this part of town. As show business grew, so did the number of congregants, and it became the place of worship for many prominent actors and performers, including Sophie Tucker and Shelley Winters. The Actors' Temple continued to thrive until shortly after WWII when people in the industry began journeying across the country to Hollywood. The synagogue then found its membership slowly decreasing. By 2005, there were only twelve members left in the congregation. A year later, when Jill Hausman became the rabbi, she found herself resuscitating what had once been a proud shul. Rabbi Hausman was pleased to report to us that in the eight years that she has been there, membership has increased to about 150, a marked improvement. Still, she has hope that the Actors' Temple will continue to grow. "We are a well-kept secret, " she says, "but we don't need to be. " To help maintain the synagogue, the sanctuary is shared with an Off Broadway theater company that performs on their "stage, " just a few feet in front of their sacred arc and collection of eleven torahs. Today, Rabbi Hausman welcomes all denominations of Judaism, even those who are "on the fringes of society. " She is a warm, sweet, bright woman who not only has her door open to everyone, but her heart as well. She emphasizes the importance of love and acceptance in her sermons and is adamant that the Actors' Temple is a "no-guilt synagogue. " People should come if they feel compelled to pray – Rabbi Hausman's only goal is to have them leave with a desire to return.
After walking down the 65th Street sidewalk, and going through the imposing bronze doors, I found myself in a place of worship, a place of connection, and a place of significant history. Moreover, it is a synagogue that stands as evidence of religious and cultural movements, technological and artistic development, and the evolution from being a Jew living in America to being an American Jew. I have passed by this grand building for decades and always imagined stepping inside. Being invited in by Cara Glickman, Vice President of Finance and Administration, was a welcome moment, but little did I expect to spend the next two hours receiving a comprehensive tour and education on this world renowned building. With only thirty-three German Jewish immigrants, Temple Emanu-El humbly began on Grand and Clinton Streets in 1845. In 1854, the temple relocated to 12th Street, and in 1868, garnering more congregants and support, it moved uptown to 43rd Street until 1925. In 1929, Temple Emanu-El consolidated with Temple Beth-El, another reform institution of Germanic Jewish ancestry founded in 1874, and opened as a new complex on 65th Street, complete with the Beth-El Chapel which features a Byzantine double-dome roof. In 1963, Temple Emanu-El expanded its religious school and opened an adjoining facility up on 66th Street. The move to 65th Street was as much a political statement as an acquisition for a larger religious practice, we learned from Mark Heutlinger, who joined us on our tour of the building. A twenty-five year veteran of Emanu-El, serving as the Administrator, Mark demonstrated his wealth of knowledge and an unprecedented passion for this institution. As we were walking, he explained to us that the move uptown said “we, as Jews, are here, and we are not going anywhere. ” It was an acculturation into society, preserving of faith and heritage, “the Temple’s construction was the embodiment of the ideal of Emanu-El to fit within the mosaic of New York life. ” The main sanctuary was designed as a basilica structure, setting a tone of grandeur with its high ceilings, delicate stained glass windows, and exquisite arc. As a response to a long history of second-class status, the Jewish culture would now be “second to none, equal to all. ” With initial reactions ranging from “how dare they” to “wow, ” the temple was redefining life for Jewish Americans, offering permanence and pride. Aesthetically, the temple is an “eclectic mix of different architecture. ” On the 66th Street wing, the Lowenstein Sanctuary built in 1962 is of modern style. The lobby on Fifth Avenue, known as the Marvin and Elisabeth Cassel Foyer, is a “singular expression of art deco style, ” complete with beautifully designed radiator covers and sculpted door handles. Mark continued to explain that the synagogue was uniquely designed such that the cantor and rabbi would stand at separate podiums so as not to obstruct the vision of the arc (restored during the temple’s restoration from 2003 to 2006). Mark opened the ark for us, revealing seven torahs split into two rows, for “a semblance of congruency. ” Above the ark, one can see a slip curtain opening to the choir room complete with a grand electronic wind pipe organ. Placed in chronological order, some of the most breathtaking parts of this main sanctuary are the stained glass windows. The stained glass sends a message of ancestral and religious history. As we walked to the back of the sanctuary, we stared at the visual representations of biblical stories like Noah’s Arc and meaningful symbols representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Reuben was identified by an eagle, which is also representative of the United States, an amalgamation of the “American Jewish Experience. ”Within Temple Emanu-El resides The Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, featuring both treasured and permanent objects acquired over the years by the temple. The oldest item in the room is a thirteenth century Hanukkah menorah. Other items included collapsible menorahs and even a dollhouse menorah designed to hide their religious identity in response to continuous European anti-Semitism forbidding Jewish expression. One of the Museum objects is a torah breastplate emblazoned with an Eagle and an American flag, sending the message that the Jewish Americans, as early as the 1890s continued to communicate, “We are American. ”In conclusion, Mark announced proudly that Congregation Emanu-El is the largest temple in the United States, and together with the nineteenth century Dahany Temple of Budapest, it is considered to be the grandest possibly in the world. So integral to the Jewish American identity, it is one structure that certainly shapes the cultures and neighborhoods on the side streets of Manhattan.
A group of people gathered in 1948 to form a conservative synagogue. It took them until 1962, when they moved into this building, to find a permanent home. Originally built in the 1860s as the First German Baptist Church and then taken over by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1926, it still has two of the onion-shaped domes from years ago standing high above.
Shaaray Tefila has a very special place in my heart. For well over twenty years, beginning in the early 1970's, this was a home away from home for my grandparents. Reaching 79th Street and having the opportunity to write about this synagogue has brought tears to my eyes again and again. Rabbi Tattelbaum played an important role not only in my grandparent's lives, but in mine as well, when I was a young, impressionable teenager. It was Chip Schrager, the Communications Coordinator for the temple in 2015, who kindly guided the Manhattan Sideways team through the space, beginning with the main sanctuary. The room is expansive, seating 400 people downstairs and 200 in the balcony, and Chip was proud to say that it was filled to the rafters during the recent Hanukkah services. Something that I did not know was that the building used to be a movie theater until the temple took over in 1958. The old projector room is now used as an office for the parenting programs. Founded in 1845 as a strict Orthodox temple, Shaaray Tefila has shifted locations throughout the city, becoming Reform along the way. Stepping into the chapel, where smaller services are held, I saw bold stained glass ornaments on one side of the room with the names and symbols of characters from Jewish lore. In the meeting room nearby, well-polished Judaic pieces, along with artifacts dating back to the temple's founding were displayed. In addition, we took note of photographs of the old temple on West 82nd Street, the Seal of the Congregation, and even the trowel that the rabbi used to lay the cornerstone of the Temple. Leaving the room, Chip gestured to photographs of six men who were senior rabbis at Temple Shaaray Tefila. The temple has a strong children's program, including a nursery school, kindergarten, and religious school that extends through high school. We appreciated getting to observe the room used for art class. A giant paint pallet decorated the wall and colorful supplies lined the room. We then ventured up to the roof where the playground is located, surrounded by a fence that still allowed for a beautiful view of the winter sunset. It was here that Chip continued to speak of the various programs offered to every age group, including senior citizens. This is what my grandparents took advantage of so many years ago, and it warmed my heart to know that people are still participating in the various classes that Shaaray Tefila has to offer. As Chip beautifully stated, "Whatever your Jewish journey is, we want to be a part of it. "
Adereth El is considered to be the oldest synagogue in New York that is still operating out of its original location. German Jewish immigrants founded the congregation in 1857, and the building was constructed in 1863. To this day, Orthodox Jews attend services on a daily basis. Until his passing in 2013, Rabbi Sidney Kleiman had been the head of the congregation for sixty years - the longest serving rabbi in the country. Not all of the original architecture remains, as the shul had to be renovated twice during the 1900s, but its old world charm is prevalent throughout. The stained glass windows, the wooden seating, and even the prayer books took us back in time.
One of the oldest congregations (not only in the city, but the country as well), Central Synagogue has been operating out of the same building since 1872. The interior, constructed in the Moorish style by a Jewish architect, Henry Fernbach, appears to be straight out of Central Europe, dappled with colored light twinkling in from the stained glass windows. Right off of the heavily trafficked Lexington Avenue, the calm interior of the synagogue inspires something approaching awe. Many New Yorkers will remember the horrific fire that destroyed much of the building in 1998. Not only did New Yorkers offer support, but so did people from around the world, as they came together in an effort to aid members of this magnificent synagogue. The synagogue reopened its doors in 2001, and today there appears to be no sign of the previous ruination. The Manhattan Sideways team joins me in encouraging people to visit: Tours are given on Wednesdays at 12: 45pm, and it is additionally open to the public on Tuesdays from 12pm-2pm.
Established in 1958, the Fifth Avenue Synagogue has been home to many Jewish spiritual leaders both from New York and Israel. It was first formed as a place of worship where the values of Orthodox Judaism would take center stage while also catering to contemporary American lifestyles. The building was designed by Percival Goodman, who called himself "an agnostic who was converted by Hitler. " The synagogue is designed in the traditional Sephardic way, with a bimah and ark in a central area and separate sections for men and women.