On June 20, the Lower East Side community board gathered to discuss the fate of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, the city’s oldest landmark, once home to the first Russian Jewish Orthodox congregation in the United States. On May 19, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol suffered a devastating fire which was later discovered to have been set by teenagers. The fire destroyed most of the building’s structure, and what it left standing may be damaged beyond repair.
The community board meeting was emotionally fraught, as Lower East Siders struggled to cope with the loss of such a meaningful building, and discussed what could be done to save it. Among those who spoke, there was an overwhelming sentiment that the structure should be preserved. “We’re not here for the wrecking balls, we’re here to save this building,” said one local, “All demolition should be halted except what is needed for safety.”
Structural Engineer Brian Chester explained the full extent of the damage. Chester worked on structural repairs two weeks prior to the council meeting, but due to unstable working conditions he was unable to get investigators completely inside the building. During initial repairs, a brick fell on to the street near construction workers, and while no one was injured, the incident highlights the dangers now associated with the building. “There are portions where we have one brick holding up several feet of tower,” Chester said before recommending that the building be partially or fully demolished.
While the building may looks salvageable from the street, its root structure is missing. The south tower will need to be torn down, while the north tower may be able to remain pending further investigation. The front of the building is far worse off than the back, and the rear wall and right wall might be able to stay.
Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue was destroyed by fire in 2017, but it had been unused and in a state of disrepair long before that. The 167-year-old building experienced severe flooding to its basement, and in 2001, an electrical fire destroyed much of its roof. Over the years, its once booming congregation dwindled to a mere twenty people and services were moved from the ground floor to the basement. In 2003 the Rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, Ephraim Oshrey, died, leaving his son Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum to lead the congregation and care for the building. In 2006, Greenbaum produced an engineering report declaring the building unsafe, and in 2007, the building officially closed to the public. Greenbaum arranged to have congregants move to a nearby synagogue in the hopes that the building would soon be fixed, but for the next ten years no repairs were made.
At the meeting, multiple Lower East Siders blamed Rabbi Greenbaum for the state of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, with one going so far as to suggest that he had burned it down himself so that he could sell the land to a developer. Because the building is landmarked, this would have been the only way to get rid of it. “If you can’t tear it down, burn it down,” a former congregant said accusingly.
Greenbaum vehemently denied this claim, calling it offensive. Throughout the meeting he placated former congregants, and expressed how much he wished the building could be restored. “That’s my vision,” Greenbaum stated, “that you should come back there and smile.”
In the years since the synagogue closed, many efforts were made to get funding for renovations. An independent architecture firm estimated that the cost to repair the building completely would be $3 million. Holly Kaye, Executive Director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservatory, had raised $1.25 million by 2005, $750,000 of which had come from the Department of Cultural Affairs. In an interview with Tablet Magazine in 2013, Kaye said she believed that Greenbaum purposely impaired their ability to receive the money she had raised by taking over two years to register as a secular nonprofit. “This process can take as little as a week in emergency circumstances,” Kaye said.
In 2006, Greenbaum and the Conservatory had not yet raised the required $3 million, and Greenbaum began to speak reluctantly with developers. While the move provoked ire in the community, Greenbaum believed that he had exhausted all of his options for saving the synagogue. “You think it didn’t hurt me to do this?,” asked Greenbaum, “It hurt me. It kills me that this should happen on my watch.”
In 2009, the building was sold to the non-profit Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Restoration Inc. for $10. At the council meeting, one Villager speculated that Greenbaum was running the charity, although there is no evidence to support this claim. Regardless, the company raised no money for renovation and did not restore the building. While New York law states that there must be three members on the board of a non-profit, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Restoration Inc. has only two.
In 2013, Greenbaum sent a hardship declaration to the landmark committee saying that all of his funds were gone and requesting permission to demolish Beth Hamedrash Hagodol. His plan was to demolish the synagogue and build a replacement synagogue in the lobby of a new apartment building. After facing enormous backlash from the Jewish community and having a reportedly mind-changing conversation with Kaye, Greenbaum rescinded the application. “It’s no small thing when people trade on the history of the lower east side,” said one distraught local.
Greenbaum insists that he has done everything in his power to save the building, calling it “a labor of love.” While he does not want to tear the building down, Greenbaum feels it is more important to have a space for his congregation.
One week before the fire, Greenbaum and the Chinese American Planning Council who own land in the adjacent lot had been close to reaching an agreement with a developer and had even scheduled a community board meeting on the topic. Greenbaum planned to sell the air rights to synagogue for $12 million and build on top of it. Now that the synagogue is largely destroyed, Greenbaum has received offers of $18 million for the property.
For over a century, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue provided safe haven to thousands of Jewish immigrants and served as an epicenter for the newly settled religion. Its unique Gothic-Revival style architecture dates back to the 1800s when it was originally a Baptist church. It remains to be seen how much of it can be saved, although the feeling at the meeting was one of weary pessimism.