Lost Synagogues of New York

When a synagogue’s doors are closed sometimes they reopen on completely different scenes, according to New York City photographer ELLEN LEVITT

by Ellen Levitt

You visit your old neighborhood, or your parents’ or even your grandparents’. You find the beloved old shul and you see that it is now…a church. Or a day care center, a medical facility, or even a private residence. Perhaps you had braced yourself for it, or maybe you are stunned.

Is there any remaining Judaica to be seen in this place, either on the outside or inside? In the years to come, will anyone else remember this lost synagogue, this place that once meant so much to you and your family?

This situation is not unusual in the five boroughs that make up New York City. I have located, photographed, researched, and documented the stories of nearly 280 lost synagogues – buildings that once were shuls, are shuls no longer, yet remain standing. There are many other synagogues that are completely gone, but I have chosen to focus on those whose shells remain.

Why did I pursue this? In April 1999, I decided to see what had become of the synagogue I had attended as a little girl. Once known as Shaare Torah, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, it had morphed into the Salem Missionary Baptist Church. I snapped photos of the site, on East 21st Street and Albemarle Road, because it still had Jewish stars on the front railing. The shul’s name was still there, alongside an artistic rendering of the burning bush created by the renowned sculptor Ludwig Wolpert.

By the mid 2000s my interest in this topic had grown, and in 2008-09 I exhibited more than 20 photographs of Brooklyn’s one-time synagogues at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Avotaynu, a Judaica press in New Jersey, published my book in 2009, and in 2011 I expanded the study to the Bronx and Queens. I am now writing the third and final installment, focusing on ex-shuls in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Governor’s Island.

These lost synagogues are intriguing. We can appreciate them for their past: how they were created, how they flourished, how they declined. Some were magnificent buildings erected by moneyed congregations. Others were more modest. Some are still in very good physical shape, their brick and cast stone and stained glass windows impressive; others are in pathetic condition, riddled with graffiti and decay. There are examples of lost shuls that have kept so many Jewish symbols that they appear to be active synagogues, such as the former Agudath Achim Bnei Jacob of East New York. Look more closely, though, and you see the small sign with the church’s name. Others, such as the Jewish Center of University Heights, a stately Bronx building with keyhole windows, seem to have no Jewish symbols left.

Most of these shuls were Orthodox or traditional in format, but a sizable number were Conservative and a few were Reform. A majority remain houses of worship, typically Baptist, Pentecostal, or Seventh Day Adventist churches. In Brooklyn and Harlem most of these are now African American churches, while in parts of the Bronx, Queens, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, many have become Latino churches. A few, mainly in Brooklyn and Queens, became mosques; a few in Queens are Hindu shrines. On the Lower East Side some became Buddhist temples.

Some buildings in Manhattan’s East Village and Upper West Side, like a few in the outer boroughs, have become private homes. Some, coming full circle, had been built as houses, while others were built as synagogues. A large one-time synagogue, the Jacob Schiff Jewish Center on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx, is now a discount store called Super Mundo.

Many of these congregations died out because the Jews who lived there moved away. There was a Jewish exodus from Brooklyn’s Brownsville and East Flatbush sections, the Bronx’s southern and western neighborhoods, Queens’s Laurelton and Corona, Manhattan’s Harlem, and parts of the Lower East Side. Some of the congregations moved to other neighborhoods. Several Manhattan shuls moved from the Lower East Side to Harlem and then ended up on the Upper West Side, where they still thrive. These include Ansche Chesed and Congregation Shaare Zedek, among others. There is even a tiny cohort that closed up in New York and later reincarnated in Israel.

As I investigated these former synagogues, I have been in touch with dozens of people who told me often-vivid details of their long-gone congregations. They discussed rabbis and cantors and memorable events. They shared memories of bar mitzvah ceremonies and weddings, and the experience of being in the community center when news of the Pearl Harbor bombing blared over the radio. They talked about the joys and the boredom of going to Hebrew school, of card parties that raised funds for Israel, and much more.

A few buildings stand out. The stunning, columned ex-Agudath Achim on Glenmore Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, still displays its Jewish stars. The large building on a corner of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, called Concourse Center of Israel, fell victim to a fire in July 2010. The flames consumed much of the church’s sign, so the building’s old Jewish name was revealed. Another former synagogue in the Bronx, Montefiore Hebrew Congregation, has a most unusual dome. A big former synagogue in Laurelton, Queens, the Laurelton Jewish Center, housed the shul to which Bernie Madoff once belonged.

We can still appreciate these buildings for their architecture, their jarring mix of religious symbols, and the stories they convey. These stories often are bittersweet, but we should not forget or deny them. The process of synagogue buildings changing into something else happened not only in New York City but also in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and other cities, suburbs, and rural areas throughout the United States.

Take the time to learn about them, see them, and reminisce about them. Do it as quickly as you can. Soon it may be too late.

Ellen Levitt, a teacher, writer, and photographer, wrote The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn and The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens. She and her family live in Brooklyn and belong to the East Midwood Jewish Center there.