Thursday, February 01, 2007

Restoring Eldridge’s Future

ake one of the tours being offered every Sunday by the Eldridge Street Project. For a suggested donation of five dollars you’ll learn a lot about the ancient history of the Lower East Side: How, in 1886, a deli king named Isaac Gellis (his outfit was eventually bought out by Hebrew National) and a banker named Sender Jarmulowsky led the first Eastern European Jews who had settled on the Lower East Side to build the first neighborhood Synagogue that was not a converted church.

They hired the services of the architectural firm Herter Brothers, which had been established only two years earlier to create more enlightened tenement houses. The Herters revved up the exotica to produce a hodgepodge of Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish styles, which the clients absolutely loved. News accounts of the day tell of such overcrowding at the Eldridge Street Synagogue (or Synagogue of Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun im Anshe Lubtz) during the High Holidays that year, that the mounted police was called in.

Our tour Docent, Jane Herman, is knowledgeable, patient and friendly. We follow her, along with three guys from Argentina. Behind us, small tour groups continue to form at a respectable pace. The Eldridge is a regular stop on every tourist map of the city.

Herman takes us to the main sanctuary to see the wooden floors. There are deep recesses in the wood, marking where the pews used to be. We stand by the red velvet-padded ark, at the top of a stately staircase. In front of it, an old fashioned lectern is towering above the congregation in the distance and the choir’s bullpen right below.

The Eldridge congregation remained affluent until after the first world war, when the new Jewish middle class discovered Brooklyn and the Eldridge crowd began to shrink. Sometime during the 1920s they stopped using the second floor sanctuary, staying, instead, in the downstairs hall, a bit below street level.

In 1979, Professor Gerard Wolfe photographed the sanctuary which had been closed off for fifty years. He found it in a sad state of disrepair and organized the Friends of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, who set out to collect the needed funds, first for emergency repairs, to prevent the collapse of the building, and then to register it as a national historic landmark (a designation it received in 1996) and raise the federal, state and private funds to restore it. In 1988, author and Television personality Bill Moyers praised the Eldridge Project to Marvin Greisman, saying the Jews who built the synagogue paid a price “so we could live in a free society today.”

This coming Hanukkah, says Jane, the project will be complete. We stare at the main sanctuary which is still in dreadful shape, with missing glass panes, broken wall panels, rotting wood floors. Our combined gazes express intense doubt.

We ask to see the downstairs area, where Jane has told us the Eldridge congregation is temporarily situated in what used to be the rabbi’s chambers (it had its own hearth), while extensive work is being done to restore the large hall intended to serve as the permanent active synagogue. Jane tells us we can’t go down there, because it isn’t safe. How many people pray there? Not more than ten or fifteen, she says.

• • •

On a drizzly Shabbat morning a group of some thirty Jewish men and ten women crowd a small room painted in cheerful yellow in the basement of the old Eldridge Street Synagogue. The healthy size of the congregation is nothing to scoff at on the Lower East Side. Rabbi Israel Stone, a tall and bearded, pleasant mannered young man in a long, black silk coat, is an able leader.

But the space, where tots and their mothers once played during services, is physically too small for Rabbi Stone’s flock. The Project initially provided an attractive, properly suspended, silk mechitzah curtain, to separate the women from the men, but either the rabbi or a member of the congregation removed it and threw a wool blanket over a clothesline tied to pipes on either side of the small enclosure. “Ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” mutters Prof. Mark Mirsky, an uprooted Bostonian who is a member of the Board of Directors of the Eldridge Street Project.

The seating is strictly fold-up chairs (padded), and when you get up to stretch your limbs moving around the room is greatly restricted. It’s a bit like trying to pray in a crowded elevator. According to Rabbi Yitzhak Reisman, who has for many years attended the Eldridge minyan, being forced out of their regular sanctuary downstairs until the summer is a serious blow to this fast-growing congregation. The change will likely result in attendance dropping. Already, he points out, many of the original members have stopped coming. Of the current participants, more than half are relative newcomers who have been attracted to the place by Rabbi Stone. A member of the Lubavitch movement, Stone has been able to use its resources to fill up the room, says Reisman, who adds that in the process the manner and timbre of the minyan has changed.

Rabbi Stone was invited to take the mantle by the man whose name is associated more than any other with the Eldridge, and whose spirit continues to influence events there. Known affectionately as The Judge, the late Paul Bookson, a former State Senator and New York State Supreme Court Justice who loved to regale his listeners at the Shabbat minyan with anecdotes from his many years of public service, was the force that kept alive the congregation, located on the distant margin of the Lower East Side. He was killed by a motorcycle outside the Brooklyn courthouse, in the fall of 2005.

For many years Bookson would invite young men from the neighborhood to lead the congregation in prayer and to assist him in running the shul. For a variety of reasons, the late judge found it more and more difficult to fill the position, and our understanding is that he asked Rabbi Kasriel Kastel of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, the supervising agency for many Lubavitch emissaries active in the New York Metropolitan Area, to send a rabbi who would serve the Eldridge congregation, with the proviso that he would not turn it into a Lubavitch enclave. Rabbi Kastel would not confirm or deny this information.

Many years earlier, in the mid 1980s, Judge Bookson, in his capacity as the elected President of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, signed a contract with the Eldridge Street Project, whose mission is to preserve the synagogue “as a site for historical reflection, aesthetic inspiration, and spiritual renewal.”

• • •

Amy Waterman, the soft-spoken director of the ESP, says the Project and the shul are both partners in the effort to make the restoration real. Simply put, Waterman asserts, “had it not been for the Project’s intervention, the Eldridge Street Synagogue would not be standing today.” She suggests that many other synagogues on the Lower East Side have shut their doors or were demolished due to constant water leaks and other defects in their construction. The collapsed Rumanian shul on Rivington Street was the most recent casualty.

Waterman plays down the fears of some members that the restoration work which forced the burgeoning congregation into its current tiny room will diminish the minyan irreparably. She says that just the opposite is true, the minyan “is actually going to grow,” since the downstairs “space is going to be so beautiful, like the sanctuary upstairs, and it will be more comfortable,” and sure to attract new members. Waterman also notes that when the restoration is complete, the downstairs women’s area will be much bigger, to accommodate the growing number of participating women.

But she readily acknowledges the discomfort to members of the congregation as the restoration project proceeds, and asks for patience, as this is only a temporary phase.

It isn’t clear whether the restoration project is operating at the pleasure of the congregation (as many members believe), or the other way around – the Project is the reigning authority and the congregation is a kind of preserve of authentic Jewish life on the Lower East Side.

Until the Judge’s untimely passing, everyone conceded that he was the elected voice of the congregation, with the authority to deal on their behalf with the Project’s leadership. His death has added a measure of ambiguity to the relationship and created a conflict within the minyan.

• • •

No one, including congregants who are in disagreement with the way the shul is being run, disputes the years of love and dedication which Mrs. Tova Bookson, the late judge’s widow, has invested in the synagogue. Indeed, after her husband’s passing she has increased her involvement and is present almost every Shabbat, setting up the Kiddush tables. Her ties to the place are as deep and as thick as her husband’s. Last March, Tova and her daughter, attorney Shoshana Bookson, were part of the festivities, as workmen in a cherry picker affixed Stars of David to the tips of the restored Moorish finials above the synagogue’s famous rose window.

“It’s fantastic, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful to think that this synagogue that was built in 1886 has had a functioning minyan for 120 years,” says Tova Bookson. She adds, “We embrace and love and welcome everybody in our shul. That’s the kind of congregation that we have and we are going to continue” to have. She praises the leadership of Rabbi Israel Stone. “Rabbi Stone is a very positive influence” and “a very dynamic rabbi.” She credits Stone with increasing the minyan on Shabbat and holidays and for giving “a wonderful Dvar Torah (sermon).”

Rabbi Stone says, “My job is to see to it that the minyan runs smoothly.” He would not comment on any other issues relating to this story.

Tova Bookson says it is no secret to anyone on the Lower East Side that “our family has been connected and has been [preserving] this synagogue.” She notes that the shul is run by an elected board, on which Shoshana serves as president. Is there, at this point, an officially elected President of the Eldridge Street Synagogue Congregation? Amy Waterman says, “Yes, Shoshana Bookson. Mrs. Bookson and her daughter informed us of the election conducted shortly after Judge Bookson’s death.”

Two ESP Board members we’ve asked say they do not know of a legitimate election which made Shoshana the Shul President, a position which rarely, if ever, falls to women in Orthodox synagogues, certainly not on the Lower East Side. (Although the Eldridge women were not kept from shouldering responsibility: Sarah Gellis signed business documents for the shul in 1909, Fruma Wolinsky headed the Ladies’ Auxiliary, and Betty Goodman was the congregation’s secretary for 20 years.) Elected or not, the synagogue under Shoshana Bookson pays Rabbi Stone’s salary and purchases the Kiddush provisions most every Shabbat, just as the late judge used to do.

According to Waterman, the Project is prevented from sponsoring the minyan. “Supporting religious functions outright would jeopardize our non-sectarian status and public funding.” She suggests that “individual Eldridge Street board members may have made contributions to assist from time to time, but not as representatives of ESP.”

Do the Booksons have in their possession 18 Torah scrolls taken from the synagogue for safe keeping?

ESP Board member David Sitzer, who used to read from the Torah at the Eldridge in the 1970’s, says he and Bookson discovered the scrolls, which were faded beyond use, in the main sanctuary's ark. The judge placed them in a bank vault for safe keeping.

The Booksons' claim to leadership was challenged last summer by several members of the congregation, who elected the Executive Committee of the Minyan Association.

On September 14, 2006, Minyan Association Chairman Arieh Liebesny sent a letter to Amy Waterman, copied to Tova Bookson, informing her of the formation of his committee and requesting a meeting to discuss conditions in the downstairs prayer hall.

On September 29, Liebesny received an email from Waterman, assuring him that “the Project is planning to schedule a meeting after the [holidays] to explain restoration plans, schedules, logistics, etc.” and adding, “We will certainly try to address the congregation’s concerns. I will be back in touch regarding date, time, etc.”

There was no further contact from Waterman, who says that, although she responded genially to the email, it does not mean that the Project has ever recognized the Minyan Association.

Instead, Liebesny received a letter dated September 27 and signed by Shoshana T. Bookson, on the stationery of her law firm, Shandell, Blitz, Blitz & Bookson, LLP, warning him: “Please be advised that your use of the name and identity of the Eldridge Street Synagogue as part of an association name as well as a website address is unauthorized and without any effect, legal or otherwise. … This letter constitutes a written warning to you to cease and desist the use of said name in your association as well as on the website. This letter further constitutes a written demand to immediately remove the Synagogue’s name from any association name and the website. Your failure to do so following this warning will result in the Synagogue pursuing full legal remedies available in both law and equity.”

“We want to become members of the congregation and take positions in running it,” says Reisman. “Members of the minyan want to be active in the operation of the shul. They want to be able to hold functions. They want to be able to raise funds, just like every other congregation.”

He adds that during the summer members of the Shabbat minyan wanted to conduct a Rosh Chodesh service (celebrating the new Lunar month) that fell on a weekday, and Tova Bookson denied them permission. They were told that the minyan meets only on Shabbat. “As far as I know, they can conduct services any time, but this is a question for Shoshana or Tova,” says Waterman. "Requests to assemble the congregation on occasions other than Shabbat and holidays will be considered on an individual basis by my mother, myself and the synagogue," emails Shoshana Bookson.

Rabbi Reisman is discouraged by the Project’s unwillingness to deal with his group. “After 10 years of praying here, and contributing several kiddushim each year, perhaps we’ll have to relocate to a more comfortable space and let the Booksons and the Project find other people to be their puppets,” he says angrily.
• • •

In recent weeks we’ve learned of a conversation between Director of Lubavitch Youth Organization Rabbi Shmuel Butman and the Booksons. As part of the messianist faction of Lubavitch, Butman gained world renown in 1993, when he invited the press to cover the coronation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had suffered a stroke and was aphasic. We were told by congregants who participated in a meeting with Butman that he requested industrial peace from everyone involved, until after the project is finished.

Is the Project aware of Butman’s involvement? “Yes, and we do not believe that Rabbi Stone or anyone else was authorized to reach out to him,” says Waterman. “This was an infraction of the legal agreement between the Project and the congregation’s board.”

ESP Board member Nehemiah Reich says he doesn’t mind if Lubavitch takes over the shul. As far as he’s concerned, Lubavitch has provided the congregation with a steady and reliable minyan, and for that he is grateful.

But others, including one other member of the ESP Board, are livid over this new development. It’s clear that while they trust and admire Rabbi Stone, they are not happy to see Butman becoming involved.

• • •

With $14.5 million collected out of the projected $15.8 million needed for the restoration work, many in the neighborhood are eager to see the project reaching completion. Jane Herman and just about anyone else connected to the Eldridge Project explain the great difference between renovating a synagogue and restoring a national historic landmark building. The standards for the latter are far more stringent, and go well beyond simply fixing up the place.

“The medieval Sagrada de Familia in Barcelona is still incomplete, as is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan,” comments Waterman. Jane Herman points to the state-of-the-art, “green” heating and cooling systems installed in the sub-basement (which was dug below the original foundation), and the elevator and other wheelchair accessible facilities, in keeping with federal requirements.

Amy Waterman concedes that the project has seen its share of setbacks, including changing architects in mid project, the loss of the original building plans, which had to be replaced with a newly-redrawn set of plans, and, most crucially, economic ups and downs which affected fundraising.

When Marvin Greisman interviewed the original president of the Eldridge Street Project Roberta Brandes Gratz, in 1988, she predicted the landmark would open its doors to the public in the spring of 1990. The doors did open in 1991, but the grand scale opening is yet to come. “Celebration activities marking the completion and the 120th anniversary will take place all fall,” declares Amy Waterman, adding cheerfully, “Hope you’ll be there!”

We wouldn't miss it for the world!

© Yanover Consulting Inc.

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