The Angel Orensanz Foundation — a synagogue-turned-art space (photo by Allison Meier)
How much attention do you really pay to your city? Some architecture becomes lost in change, and Ellen Levitt has been documenting through photographs and stories over 80 synagogues throughout Manhattan and Staten Island that have been repurposed, transformed, and often made invisible.
There are former houses of worship throughout New York City, and a large number of these reconfigured spaces are former synagogues. In every borough of the Big Apple, as well as on Governors Island, there are “lost synagogues” — building that were once Jewish houses of worship but are now churches, private homes, schools, medical facilities, eateries… even an art gallery.
Some of these once-Jewish sites still wear the remains of Judaica; look carefully and you will see Magen David stars, Hebrew letters, Mosaic tablets, Lions of Judah. Other buildings have lost their symbols to wear and tear and cosmetic overhaul.
There are some Gotham neighborhoods that house several of these curious sights: Manhattan’s East Village, Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Bed-Stuy, the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, even Queens’s Corona. No matter where these buildings are, they provide an informal history and religion lesson for those who are observant (of buildings, at the very least!).
I have documented more than 250 of these buildings, big and small, grandiose and modest, well-kept and decrepit, in my books in The Lost Synagogues of New York City
series, published by Avotaynu
. And how did I become interested in this bittersweet topic? The synagogue my family belonged to when I was a very little girl, Brooklyn’s Shaare Torah on Albemarle Road in Flatbush, became a Baptist church. Having seen this building, with its jarring mix of Jewish and Christian symbols, I became fascinated and started to look into this throughout Brooklyn, and eventually in the rest of New York City.
Here are six examples of these synagogues among the multitude that Levitt has uncovered in the constantly altering urban landscape of New York City, with details from Levitt on their hidden histories:
“This was a post-WWII synagogue that is now a mosque, and one of the very few ex-synagogues to have had a parking lot! It’s in Queens, and visible from the Grand Central Parkway. The Jewish congregation sold the building and merged with another congregation in Queens.”
“This was a YMHA (YMCA, but Hebrew) and is now a jail. It’s in the Bronx, near Crotona Park.”
“This was a very well-known synagogue on Pike Street on the Lower East Side (the Young Israel movement was born here, due to a rabbi’s speech). Now it is a Buddhist temple, and there is a huge urn on the outside level that has swastikas on it. I know, it’s a Buddhist symbol, but it’s disconcerting. The street level has a discount shop. In July, the building next door was in the news because there was an explosion there, after a resident set off dozens of roach bombs.”
“This was a small synagogue that is now an art gallery — the Woodward Gallery. They found a decorative piece from the synagogue, and gave it to another nearby synagogue.”
“This was the Kletzker Benevolent Association, a particularly large Jewish aid society. Now it is a Chinese funeral parlor. It is an unusual L-shaped building that has entrances on 2 streets.”
“This was a yeshivah that also held religious services, although it was originally built to house paper boys and other poor kids. The school moved uptown and is still active (name changed). Now the building houses a yoga studio, homes, and more. A few buildings east from this is another former synagogue that is now ultra-pricey housing.”“
The Lost Synagogues of New York City books by Ellen Levitt are available from Avotaynu.