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.”
I never miss the opportunity to gaze upward when entering a space in the hopes of discovering a chandelier (Check out our Sideways Story on the stunning chandeliers of the Side Streets). Peeking inside Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on a Sunday afternoon, it was the dazzling, yet unlit, fixture that captured my attention first. I could still decipher its glistening in the dim shafts of light filtering through the stunning figurative stained glass "Transfiguration of Christ" by L.C. Tiffany (containing over 17,561 individual pieces of glass). When I returned to the church with members of our team and Chrissi Nicolas, the office manager, turned on a few of the lights, we were able to see the spectral beams produced by the Czechoslovakian crystal. The entire sanctuary appeared to work in tandem, with the stained glass projecting light on the chandelier, which in turn reflected it onto the artwork surrounding the altar.For those who attend and work at Annunciation, it is considered a miraculous place. Chrissi told us that it was built in 1894 as the Fourth Presbyterian Church. The Greek Orthodox Church bought the location in 1953, after having met in various locations since its founding as the “Evangelismos” (“The Good News”) church in the late nineteenth century. At the beginning, the entire space was lit with a combination of electricity and gas lighting. They used an ingenious series of vents that allowed the gas to escape while turning on every light in the room with a single flint switch. “For its time, this building had amazing engineering,” Chrissi said. We ascended to the loft, where we received a view of the magnificent pipe organ. Annunciation's organ is one of the few tonally unaltered organs designed by E.M. Skinner that remain in existence today.We learned a lot about the traditions and practices of the Greek Orthodox Church through Chrissi. For example, one always knows the feast day is celebrated by the church by looking to the left of the Royal Doors of the altar to see what icon appears there. Chrissi also provided us with an interpretation of the surrounding religious art imagery. For example, in the painting of the Annunciation, the angel has his feet apart to show that he is running towards the Virgin Mary. In 1957, the congregation installed an intricate iconastasis screen of linden and lime tree wood designed and executed in Greece by noted Byzantine-style woodcarver Theophanis Nomikos, with inset icons hand-painted by New York iconographer Konstantinos Youssis of the Bronx.There are many coincidences contained within the church’s history. For example, the Greek Orthodox congregation that would become Annunciation was founded in 1892, the same year the church at 91st Street was starting to be built. Also, the congregation moved into the building on March 25th, the day of the Annunciation of Christ, hence the name. Possibly the most mysterious fact about the church, however, is that one of the priests is said to have been visited by St. Xenia, a little-known saint. After his vision, the priest was hesitant to tell anyone, since it was the twentieth century, and he was afraid that no one would believe him. But he did some research, and discovered that St. Xenia did, in fact, exist. In his vision, she asked him to paint her icon. He did, and today the icon he painted holds a special position in the sanctuary and in the history of the parish
The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum first opened in 1897 thanks to three of Peter Cooper’s granddaughters: Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah. Their grandfather was an industrialist who founded The Cooper Union, a renowned art school. The museum was created as part of the Cooper Union and officially became a branch of the Smithsonian Museum in 1967. As for the building that houses the exhibitions, it was originally Andrew Carnegie’s mansion. Today, it is known for being the only museum in the country devoted to educating the public about both historic and contemporary design.There is also an entrance to the museum through the garden on East 90th Street.