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Congregation Shaare Zedek - MOVED

Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 1 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side

Note: Congregation Shaare Zedek has moved to a new temporary location at the Franciscan Community Center as of 2018.

Although it is unclear exactly what date the congregation was founded, Congregation Shaare Zedek's members pinpoint it to be somewhere between 1837 and1839. Though the synagogue started on Henry Street it “did what most synagogues did at the time,” in the words of board member Lianna, and followed the migration of the Jewish population north to Harlem and then south to the Upper West Side.

The congregation built its current home in 1922. Since the building was finished pre-depression, Lianna admitted that the building is “not fully modest,” designed to be “neo-classical with stained glass as a focal piece.” The sanctuary is highlighted by a greenish-yellow stained glass, even on the ceiling. Though at one time the congregation was bustling, it has since shrunk in size due to the “ebb and flow of the community.” Lianna pointed out that with seventy-five families, “the community is very small and does not really fit the space at all.” However, where many synagogues have members who only come once or twice a year for holidays, an unusually large percentage of the families at Shaare Zedek are active throughout the year. “We’re proud,” Lianna stated with a smile.

The synagogue fills a particular niche in the neighborhood. “We’re a very specific kind of Jewish community, for those looking for a more traditional service,” Lianna explained. Services are conducted in Hebrew, but women play an equal role in the congregation. It is an excellent setting for those whose lives are not entirely centered on Judaism, but prefer their synagogue to be traditional. Lianna chose this synagogue in 2011 with her husband, who practices Judaism very traditionally. She is more liberal in her approach to Judaism, yet knowledgeable, and Shaare Zedek was a good match for them. The congregation has turned out to be ideal for them in many ways. “It’s intimate, but not too intimate.”

The synagogue is led by Jonah Geffen, a rabbi who joined the community in 2015. “He’s a nice person in his soul,” Lianna stated. Though the congregation is a modest size, there is a vast age span. Everyone is represented, from the oldest Holocaust survivors to those who are just out of college. “There are a lot of kids running around on Saturdays,” Lianna said. The synagogue also offers special dinners for young professionals on Fridays. In Lianna’s words, Shaare Zedek represents true “diversity of Jewish expression.”

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Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 1 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side
Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 2 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side
Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 3 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side
Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 4 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side
Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 5 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side
Congregation Shaare Zedek   MOVED 6 Historic Site Synagogues Upper West Side

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Lost Gem
Congregation B'nai Jeshurun 1 Synagogues Founded Before 1930 undefined

Congregation B'nai Jeshurun

B’nai Jeshurun is the second oldest congregation in New York City, after Shearith Israel. I spoke to the current rabbi, Jose Rolando “Roly” Matalon, who shared his knowledge of the origin of synagogues in Manhattan. In 1654, Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish Portuguese synagogue) was formed by a contingency of European Jews, many from Amsterdam, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. As more immigrants began arriving to Manhattan’s shores, a large group of Ashkenazi Jews - who were worshipping at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue - decided to create their own synagogue. They formed B’nai Jeshurun and began meeting on Pearl Street on the Lower East Side in 1825. Over the years, the congregation steadily moved north until they settled in their current location in 1918. Throughout the twentieth century, B’nai Jeshurun became known for its devotion to social justice and activism. A long line of famous names spoke at the synagogue, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. The synagogue’s political activism, however, sprung into high gear around the turn of this century. Rabbi Roly spoke of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, his teacher and the orchestrator of a substantial turning point in the synagogue’s history. Meyer was an American rabbi who was a “defender of human rights in Argentina” for twenty-five years while he resided there. By the 1970s, B’nai Jeshurun was in a state of bankruptcy. The congregation reached out to Meyer to lead their revival in 1985. Rabbi Roly followed his teacher to New York shortly afterwards. As he describes it, under the tutelage of Meyer, the synagogue began to “address social issues very aggressively. ” They opened a center for the homeless and a food kitchen. B’nai Jeshurun was also one of the first synagogues to feature music during services. In Rabbi Roly’s words, “the synagogue was doing things that resonated with people, ” and so there was a large increase in membership in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the 1990s also brought a setback: in 1991, the ceiling of the sanctuary collapsed. B’nai Jeshurun was already in talks with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew about how they could work on social justice programs together. The church offered their facilities to the congregation while the ceiling was rebuilt. “They were incredibly generous and kind, ” Rabbi Roly told me. The church and the synagogue still have a close friendship. In 2010, the synagogue requisitioned the back of the sanctuary’s building, which had been sold to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in 1984. The building has been used to accommodate the congregation of over 1600 families. Rabbi Roly is proud to lead “a community that is devoted and engaged. ” He describes the congregants as “people who step forward and embrace their spiritual journey readily. ” Throughout the synagogue's history, its occupants have “always been ready for the next challenge. ” And to those who are not yet part of the synagogue’s family, he says, “We are always open and ready to welcome and embrace people who want to join our journey and explore community with us. ”

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Ballet Hispanico 1 Dance Dance Studios Historic Site undefined

Ballet Hispanico

What began as a grassroots dance school that emphasized performances for the community has since grown into a world-class institution, acclaimed for its facilities and programs. Ballet Hispanico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez, a Venezuelan dancer with Puerto Rican and Mexican parentage. Her career included performing in the Federico Rey Dance Company as well as in Broadway productions of Kismet and Lute Song. Eduardo Vilaro took over from Tina Ramirez as Artistic Director in 2009. Eduardo, who grew up in the Bronx, has been part of the Ballet Hispanico family since 1985 and spent many years helping to expand the company and to create new programming. In chatting with Eduardo, I was able to learn more of the company's origin, beginning with the purpose for its inception: to provide a place where Latinos could “follow a dream in the performing arts. ” Before the company, there were no places in the city that truly embraced Latino dancers and enabled them to practice their talents and excel in the arts. Initially, students from the school danced everywhere, including at street fairs and in parks, to expose the community to Latino dances and choreography and to show that there was “more than just West Side Story. ” They took the folkloric roots of dance and ran with them, creating modern, carefully honed dance forms. In Eduardo’s words, “We are not a folkloric company. We take culture and investigate it through the lens of artists in contemporary culture. ” Where folkloric dance can tend to feel like a museum piece, Ballet Hispanico is “relevant forever. ”Though students at Ballet Hispanico are trained in ballet, what sets the school apart is that by enrolling in the various programs, dancers are expected to become proficient in three main forms: flamenco, Cuban classical, and contemporary. Eduardo explained that Ballet Hispanico is “one of the few places in New York City where a child can train in flamenco. ” Though Ballet Hispanico offers classes to both children and adults, Eduardo especially appreciates his interactions with young people. “These programs keep me fresh - working with youth is so refreshing. ”I was able to witness a class full of those young students. On one of their upper floors, children age ten to twelve were arrayed around the room, holding onto the ballet barres as they rehearsed for their spring production. The teacher walked through the space, meticulously correcting their stances and declaring ballet terminology that the very serious dancers recognized and followed. The class was incredibly diverse, including three young boys. At the end, most of the children excitedly headed upstairs for a second class, this one focusing on flamenco. As I chatted with a few of these precious children, I found the difference between the concentrated, disciplined faces in the class and the excited, eager expressions in the hallway both heart-warming and impressive. A few told me that they had been dancing since they were two years old. An unexpected, yet exciting moment was when I was invited to step inside Ballet Hispanico’s costume room where Diana, known to everyone as “D, ” has worked for eight years, creating the outfits that the students and company members wear for performances. The room was filled with a variety of costumes in all shapes and sizes. As I stood in awe, D pointed to a flamenco outfit hanging on a high shelf, sharing with me that it was one of Tina Ramirez’s original costumes. When I looked at her and said what an amazing job she has, she simply responded, “I love designing for the company. ”In addition to the school and the company, Ballet Hispanico is involved in "social justice, " of which Eduardo is very proud. They work with youths in shelters, providing the children both with a creative outlet and food. Eduardo also mentioned that the company has worked with incarcerated youth, saying “It changes us more than it changes them. ” Additionally, after the travel ban was lifted in 2014, Ballet Hispanico was the first Latino company to travel to Cuba. On a more personal level, Ballet Hispanico helps Latinos to find their place in the world. “When you are a ‘ripped from my land’ immigrant, it changes you, ” Eduardo said, asking, “Who are we as Latinos in America? ” The arts, Eduardo insisted, are the best way to create a dialogue about “who we are. ” If dance is, as Eduardo suggests, a language all to itself, Ballet Hispanico is proficient in many different dialects. Like the Latino cultures that it aims to represent in the dance world, Ballet Hispanico’s programs are incredibly varied and far-reaching. As Eduardo so nicely phrased it, “Ballet Hispanico is a metaphor for culture. ”