Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 1849 Congregation Anshe Chesed -- No. 172 Norfolk Street


photo by Alice Lum

The governor of Nieuw Amsterdam, Peter Suyvesant, had a strong and simple view on religion:  he was right and all others were wrong.  A member of the Dutch Reformed Church, he forbade citizens to “admit, lodge or entertain…any one of the heretical and abominable sect called the Quakers” in 1655.  The following year he refused Lutherans the right to organize a church.  So it was not surprising that when the first Jews landed in New York in 1654 they were met with severe discrimination.

By the 1820s the Jewish population in New York City was still relatively small; yet it was substantial enough to have three separation congregations: Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest; Congregation B’nai Jeshurun; and Congregation Anshe Chesed.  Composed of German, Polish and Dutch Jews, Anshe Chesed was the youngest group, established in 1828.  Between 1812 and 1846 the Jewish population would swell from 400 to 10,000 and by the start of the Civil War there would be more than two dozen synagogues in the city.  Large numbers, however, did not mean wide-spread acceptance.

Congregation Anshe Chesed was made up mostly of immigrants with little money or status.  They worshiped in rented rooms until 1842 when the old Quaker Meeting House at No. 38 Henry Street was purchased and converted to a synagogue.  Within a decade the congregation grew to be the largest of any synagogue in America.

Anshe Chesed (People of Kindness) distinguished itself from other Manhattan congregations as well by embracing the Reform Movement.  But this change would not become fully rooted until the group built a new, impressive synagogue on Norfolk Street.  As it outgrew the Henry Street facility, trustees began searching for a new site by 1848.  Three lots at Nos. 172 to 176 Norfolk Street, between Stanton and Houston Streets, were purchased for $10,000 (around a quarter of a million dollars today).  In an ironic twist of poetic justice, the lot was part of Peter Stuyvesant’s former estate.

Several architects submitted drawings and a vote in February 1848 resulted in the commission going to Alexander Saeltzer.  The German born architect turned to Gothic Revival for the new structure.  The style had first appeared in New York a decade earlier and would soon become the favorite for Christian churches.  Because of that, later synagogue architects would shy away from Gothic as being too church-like.  But for now, Saeltzer forged ahead with vigor.

His completed brick structure featured the expected pointed arched openings and carved tracery. Two sturdy towers flanked a recessed central section.  Pinnacles and gently sagging moldings adorned the windows; while inside a superb groined-arched ceiling was supported by clustered columns.  The once-tiny congregation of impoverished immigrants had arrived.

photo by Alice Lum

The new shul was formally consecrated on May 16, 1850 with elaborate ritual.  It was the largest synagogue in New York, capable of accommodating 700 men on the main floor and 500 women in the gallery.  The inclusive guest list to the dedication included several Christian clergymen, the mayor and members of the Common Council.

Now in its new home, some reform changes were made--like the introduction of a choir of both sexes.  Little by little other innovations would be accepted.  In 1869 a pipe organ was purchased and later families were permitted to sit together during worship.  On December 28, 1873 The New York Times said “Innovations were gradually introduced; and at a general meeting of the congregation, held a week ago, they declared themselves in harmony with every principle enunciated and proclaimed by reformed Judaism, prepared to adopt the most radical measures to bring their worship to accord with modern ideas.”

As a sort of by-product of this decision, the congregation applied to consolidate with the Temple Adath Jeshurun.  “Thus the oldest orthodox congregation of the City of New York has become merged entirely with a congregation recognized as the leading radical reform congregation of the country,” announced The Times.

The combined congregation built a new synagogue uptown on Lexington Avenue.  The Norfolk Street shul was purchased by Congregation Shaari Rachmim, which sold it 13 years later to the First Hungarian Congregation Oheb Zedek.  It would not be until June 19, 1890 that this congregation received its first rabbi and appropriate celebration surrounded his arrival. 

The New York Times reported that the synagogue was “completely filled” at the reception of the Rev. Dr. Philip Klein.  Before the congregation were six other rabbis, three judges and other dignitaries.  Following the ceremony a banquet was given.  The importance with which the congregation viewed the event was evident in the list of letters of regret that were read.  Among them were notes from “President Harrison, Vice-President Morton, ex-President Cleveland, and Mayor Grant.”

Along with its Hungarian-born congregants, the synagogue was also spiritual home to many Russians.  In 1905 the Russian government began an all-out persecution of Jews.  On March 12 that year a cable from a group of Jews in Berlin arrived at The New York Times office describing “a new period of persecution of Jews in Russia and alleging that Russian anti-Semites are making a systematic attempt to arrange a repetition of the Kishineff massacre.”  The cable said that manifestos were being distributed “advocating massacres of Jews” with rewards to those who carried them out.

By December the threats had been made real and Russian Jews were being slaughtered.  Speaking to the First Hungarian Congregation on December 4, 1905, Rev. H. Pereira Mendes said that they were the congregation who felt the most grief; for they personally received the letters from Russia.

“The world has never witnessed a time like this.  There have been times of intense suffering at the hands of one nation where the others could not help.”  The rabbi tried to give hope, saying that from the terror would come reform.  “There must be scenes of horror, yet, but can we doubt the ultimate result?  It is equal rights for all Jews in Russia.  The horrors have stirred up the world, and now we will have a government of the people by the people and for the people.”

Sadly, the ultimate horror for Jews in Europe was still a few decades away.

The following year, on November 4, 1906, the cornerstone was laid for the Hungarian congregation’s new synagogue in Harlem.  For a while Congregation Ohab Zedek would maintain both locations.  “The old synagogue in Norfolk Street will be in charge of the Rev. Philip Klein,” reported The Times, “and an assistant will be appointed to officiate at the new temple, which will be completed by Jan. 1.”

Congregation Ohab Zedek was still on Norfolk Street in 1910 when Jacob A. Rich married Sarah Siegel.  The ceremony would not have drawn attention normally.  Neither the bride nor groom was socially important—as a matter of fact Rich was a member of one of New York’s lowest caliber groups, the newsboys.  Like shoeblacks, the boys earned a meager existence on the streets and many slept and were fed in lodging houses built specifically for them.

But Jacob Rich, known as Jack Sullivan on the street, had earned the title “King of Newsboys.”  And his wedding was a major event in the Lower East Side.  “Two hundred newsboys will leave the Newsboys’ Home in a body and march to the synagogue in honor of the ‘king,’” reported the New-York Tribune on November 24, 1910.  “Following a reception at the Café Boulevard the couple will go to Lakewood, where they will spend their honeymoon.”

In 1934 the brick was still exposed.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
On July 2, 1921 the Tribune ran a one-line article announcing that the Norfolk Street Synagogue had been sold by the First Hungarian Congregation to the Congregation Sheveth Achin Anshe Slonim.  The newest congregation in the building would stay on for half a century.  But by the 1970s changes in the neighborhood pushed the members out.  In 1974 the building was abandoned.

About five years after it was abandoned, the building was in serious disrepair -- photograph by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWPK65ED&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

Vandals broke in and what damage they did not do, weather and vermin finished.  The once elegant sanctuary was in ruins when Spanish artist Angel Orsensanz stumbled across it.  The oldest surviving synagogue structure in Manhattan and the fourth-oldest in the country; it was on the verge of devastation.

photograph by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWPK65ED&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
The painter and sculptor purchased the derelict property in 1986 and converted it to an art gallery and performance space.  The brick walls are now stucco-covered and brightly painted.  Inside much of the architectural detail has been preserved, although like the façade, it has been brightened with a spectrum of vivid hues.  The building’s original purpose has come to life again, as well, with the Shul of New York worshipping below street level.

photo by Alice Lum

The marvelous and nearly-lost historic building is tucked away on little Norfolk Street where few New Yorkers have ever ventured.

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