Thanks to an Anglo-Catholic education, I grew up in chapels and churches – and although I don’t go to services anymore, I still love exploring those buildings. Today I expanded my religious education with a visit to a synagogue – and admired it in much the same way.
I don’t know if I expected many differences, but I was actually struck by how similar the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Chinatown was to many of the churches I grew up attending. There were gorgeous wooden pews, a central altar-like podium, brightly-colored stained-glass windows, stone floors and hushed voices.
Of course the motifs on display were very different and the patterns and scenes in the windows were a little more cheery than those I grew up around. And it also had one stunning addition unlike anything I’ve seen before: A gorgeous bright blue window dotted with stars that immediately drew your eye upwards.
Up some creaky stairs, there was a small exhibition detailing the restoration project of the synagogue, which is now a National Historic Landmark. When it was built in 1887, it was one of the first synagogues built in the U.S. by Eastern European Jews, but numbers began to dwindle in the 1920s when Jewish families began moving elsewhere.
By the 1950s, it had a leaky roof and was put out of service – but in the 80s, a local community group promised to repair the damage and historians and craftsmen went to painstaking efforts to recreate the processes and finishes that had been put in place a century earlier.
After $20 million, it re-opened its doors in 2007 and continues to serve as an Orthodox synagogue, as well as a museum and education center.
The synagogue is open until 5pm between Sundays and Thursdays, and I’d encourage you to check it out if you’re around Canal Street. It’s beautiful and offers rare solace from the hubbub of Chinatown.