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.”
Though Ohav Sholom may not be as old as some of the surrounding synagogues that can trace their roots back to the nineteenth century, it has a rich history. German Jews founded the synagogue in 1940, in the very beginning stages of World War II, before the United States entered the fight. The founders of Ohav Sholom had managed to make an early escape, fleeing the Nazi regime and relocating to New York. The congregation grew out of a desire to celebrate the founders' pride in their Jewish identity. I spoke to Rabbi Aaron D. Mehlman, who has been Ohav Sholom's rabbi since 1995. He is a dynamic figure, quick to smile and quicker to crack a joke. He showed me around the synagogue, past the sounds of children playing in the preschool upstairs. The congregation moved to the current location in 1955 and the synagogue was renovated in the early 2000s, replacing fluorescent bulbs with warmer light sources, raising the front area, retiling the floor, and repainting the walls. Rabbi Mehlman informed me that the building used to be a one-family townhouse. He and his family now live in the Rabbi's quarters on the top floor, a space that used to be a children's nursery. He took me outside briefly to show me the windows of his home: they are noticeably smaller than the windows on the other floors, demonstrating an early version of child-proofing. Windows were designed with higher bottom sills so that children could not lift themselves up onto them. Rabbi Mehlman told me that he once had the pleasure of glancing at the original blueprints of the building, which were so old that they were written on velum. Whereas many synagogues are large and cavernous, Ohav Sholom is cozy and gives off a strong feeling of home. There are colorful stained glass windows along one side and a beautiful blue parokhet decorating the ark, behind a sliding panel. When I visited, Rabbi Mehlman was in talks with the board to renovate the screen that divides men from women during the orthodox service. Where there was a wire screen, Rabbi Mehlman was hoping to put a different material, such as an opaque or stained glass. Along with leading Ohav Sholom, Rabbi Mehlman has his own kosher certifying business called "Make it Kosher. " The business began thanks to one of his congregants, who had invested in a Dunkin Donuts and wanted to make sure that each step of the doughnut process was kosher. Rabbi Mehlman visited the Dunkin Donut mix plant in Boston, checked it out, gave out a certificate, and "the rest is history. " Along with many local eateries, Rabbi Mehlman continues his relationship with "tons" of Dunkin Donuts, his very first account. I asked Rabbi Mehlman about his congregation, and he mentioned that though many of the congregants are "very" local, some people come from as far as streets in the 50s and 60s, despite the fact that they walk to the synagogue on Shabbat and other holidays. The rabbi joked, "We try discouraging them, but they keep coming! " He then went on to say that he has a sixty to eighty percent turnover rate - "Every three-to-five years I have a new synagogue. " He explained that young people come to the area for school and then have to leave because of the price of rent. There are, however, members of the congregation who have been attending services for generations – "the original crew, " as the rabbi calls them. For example, the gabbai, who orchestrates the services, has been around for fifty years. There is also a ninety-eight year old Holocaust survivor who still tries to make most of the services, despite his age. Rabbi Mehlman then shared with me that this gentleman especially wanted to attend the upcoming service that was about Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people in the Bible. His reasoning for wanting to be there was that he "had seen Amalek, " firsthand, referring to Hitler and the Nazis. The man, currently living on the Upper West Side, survived five different labor and concentration camps. Rabbi Mehlman is extremely proud of his congregation and that there are "no fights here. " He has heard of many synagogues where there are issues with politics, back-stabbing and secessions, but insists that Ohav Sholom has never been plagued with those troubles. "No one's sought to overthrow me, yet, " he joked. Instead, Ohav Sholom is "an oasis of peace in Manhattan. " The rabbi informed me that "Ohav Sholom" means "lover of peace" in Hebrew: "It's like an inside joke. We really get along. "
The Church of the Holy Trinity began its life as a memorial. In 1798, William Rhinelander, one of the wealthiest men in New York, purchased a large parcel of land between Third Avenue and the East River. After his death, his granddaughter, Serena, selected a piece of that land on which to build a church in his honor. The Church of the Holy Trinity already existed on Madison Avenue and 42nd Street, but they planned on selling their midtown plot because the area was starting to become a business district. The church merged with St. James Church and moved to this uptown spot set aside by Serena. The church was consecrated in 1899 and Holy Trinity has provided a spiritual home to the surrounding neighborhood ever since.
Many New Yorkers recognize Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s residence, but few know that the first floor functions as a museum. Archibald Gracie, a prosperous merchant of Scottish ancestry, had the mansion built in 1799 as a retreat from the city, which at the time did not extend above Canal Street. Paul Gunther, the director of the mansion, explained, “This was their summer home, their Hamptons. ” The house stands on a spot that was used as a strategic location during the American Revolutionary War due to its position overlooking the East River. Gracie, a staunch federalist, was friends with Alexander Hamilton, who called a meeting at Gracie Mansion that culminated in the creation of what would become the New York Post. The house remained in private hands for almost a entury until it was seized by the city in 1896 for tax evasion. The mansion then underwent several metamorphoses, serving as public restrooms, a concession stand, and the first location for the Museum of the City of New York. In 1942, urban planner Robert Moses convinced the city to use the mansion as a residence for the mayor, and Fiorello La Guardia became the first to live there during the Second World War. Gracie Mansion’s personal savior was former Mayor Ed Koch, who established the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in the 1980s. By that point, the house had become slightly dilapidated and, over time, much of its original components had disappeared. Koch went about restoring his home to how it might have looked during its federal beginnings. Paul explained that Koch “had the Jackie Kennedy motive, ” because in the same way that she made the White House “correct” by reconstructing it to replicate its appearance during its glory days, Koch revived the residence to become what La Guardia once called “the Little White House. ”The developments at the mansion in more recent years are credited to Chirlane McCray, an activist, writer, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife. It was her idea to focus on the year that the mansion was built. She hoped to draw attention to the diversity that existed in the early 1800s by displaying portraits of notable Black figures such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Haitian slave-turned-philanthropist Pierre Toussaint. Her work, in Paul’s words, represents “a perfect balance of respect and change” — an admirable pursuit for New York’s historic sites.
Gregory Fryer, the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, is thankful for his church for many reasons. First of all, it was formed in the winter of 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War. Gettysburg was only a few months away, but Gregory sees the founding of Immanuel as proof that it was still "a holy time. " "It was the creation of a new church, right in the middle of wartime, " he said, with the soft, deliberate tone of a man who has spoken many sermons. The congregation met in various places on the Upper East Side, including what is now St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for the first two decades before building the 88th Street church. Gregory is grateful that that church, dedicated in 1886, was built with great care by the local German immigrants. The same men who worked in Rupert's brewery, ran the neighborhood bakeries, and lived in the tenement houses painstakingly built this beautiful church on 88th and Lex. "I'm honored every time I set foot in it, " Gregory asserted. Many of the immigrants were woodworkers, so the church stands out from its neighbors in that it is filled with wooden structures and hand-carved decorations from the Black Forest in Germany. The bells are also imported from Germany and were gifts from Empress Victoria in the late 1800s. They are named "Glaube, " "Hoffnung, " and "Liebe" which mean "faith, " "hope, " and "charity. " The bells are rung by hand at the start of each service and during the consecration – a practice that is quite fun for those who participate, judging by the twinkle in the pastor’s eye as he mentioned, “We enjoy pulling on the rope. ”"My call to be pastor here reflects the change of the neighborhood, " Gregory stated. He is the first pastor who does not speak German. "I am distinguished by a deficiency, " he said. The church stopped offering German services in the 1970's, resulting in some German-speakers moving to Zion St. Mark. Some of the older congregants, who have been coming to the church for over fifty years, still speak the language, but Gregory jokingly assured me that they "forgive" him for not knowing it. The older congregants are referred to as "the power table, " since they always sit together at coffee hour. Gregory calls them the "guardians of the wisdom of the neighborhood. " They are part of what Gregory describes as "a very diverse congregation. "Immanuel fills a very important niche in New York: As of 2016, it is the only church in Manhattan that is part of the North American Lutheran Church. They were originally part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the more liberal group, but decided to become more moderate in order to give other Lutherans a place to worship in the city. After a year of debating, they applied to the NALC and were accepted in record time. When I visited in 2016, the church had just finished renovating its slate roof and steeple. "It took every nickel in sight to do it, but we did it right, " Gregory said proudly. The church could have used a cheaper material to fix their roof, but the congregation felt strongly that the church should honor the work that the original builders did by using the same materials. The process was long and arduous. Gregory told me how every detail was discussed at length and showed me one of the original nails, which became a centerpiece of a discussion about what hardware to use. Every congregant did his or her part. For example, Gregory took the bucket that he used to catch water from a leak in the roof and invited the children to a "noisy collection, " where they dropped coins into the bucket. Before commencing the work, Immanuel had the building appraised by a structural engineer, who declared it "solid as a rock, " suggesting that the congregation could hang a 747 jet from the rafters. A few months after the project was completed, the church was awarded the “Carnegie Hill Neighbors Enrichment Award” in recognition of the skillful renovation. An added bonus of the new roof is that the church is now insulated. Ever since a nearby department store's demolition project destroyed the church's plaster roof, it has gone without insulation. The church used the settlement money from the department store to buy the parsonage apartment where Gregory and his wife raised their family. The church never replaced the plaster because they realized that the church was more beautiful with the exquisite craftsmanship of the roof beams exposed – the rafters were never meant to be seen, but the German woodworkers put great care and skill into them anyway. Not to mention, the acoustics were greatly improved.