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.”
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. ”
The Synod of Bishops Russian Church is the base for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in New York City. ROCOR, which was formed in response to the policies of the Bolsheviks in the early twentieth century, was a separate religious entity from the Russian Orthodox Church for ninety years. In 2007, however, the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate was signed, making ROCOR a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The administrative building on 93rd Street contains two churches within its structure: The Cathedral of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign and St. Sergius Church. The building was presented to ROCOR in the mid-twentieth century by Serge Semenenko, a Russian banker. The mansion was built by the architect William A. Delano in the Georgian-Federal style in 1918.
On her own grassy island in the middle of Riverside Drive, Joan of Arc sits astride a horse, staring over the Hudson River. The sculpture’s artist is Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, one of the first woman artists to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She studied and worked in the United States until 1906, when she moved to Paris. Joan of Arc became her muse while she was in France, so she researched the female historical figure extensively and began work on her sculpture. The piece is notable for being one of the first featuring a human being that Huntington attempted. Up to that point, the artist focused on animals. In 1910, Huntington finished her sculpture and won an Honorable Mention for it at the Paris Salon. Meanwhile, money was being raised in New York for a statue of Joan of Arc that would be placed by Riverside Park for the 500th anniversary of the saint’s birth. Huntington’s sculpture was chosen, making it the first equestrian statue by a woman to be erected in New York.