East Coast Historic Synagogues
Check out these East Coast synagogues
By Elinor Spokes
There are many ways to plan a vacation. One is to pick a specific location your family has dreamed of visiting and stay there; another is to pick a region that is of particular interest and explore its wonders. Yet another is to identify Jewish historic sites and plan a trip focused on that location.
Because in the history of Jewish immigration to America, the vast majority of Jewish immigrants arrived on the shores of the East Coast of the United States, many of the oldest Jewish congregations are located up and down the Eastern seaboard. Creating an itinerary to include one or more of these sites can be the focus of a fascinating summer excursion; or, if you are already planning to travel to one of these cities this summer, the following are well worth a visit. All are within driving distance from Baltimore.
Beth Sholom Congregation, Philadelphia, Pa.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Last Project
Located in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia, is Beth Sholom Congregation. Founded in 1919, it was the first congregation to move to the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1950s.
As the only synagogue designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, it was the last project completed before his death. Designated as a National Historic Landmark by the United States Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior, Beth Sholom is one of only four synagogues nationwide to receive this distinction.
Constructed between 1954 and 1959, the design of the magnificent synagogue was inspired by the image of Mount Sinai and was the result of collaboration between Wright and the congregational rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen. Wright described the structure as a “luminous Mount Sinai,” illuminated by natural light during the day and glowing from within by its interior lighting at night.
Tours of the synagogue must be arranged by appointment: Call 215-887-1342 ext. 100. For more information, go to bethsholomcongregation.org.
Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York, N.Y.
First Eastern European House of Worship
Opening just before the High Holidays of 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was the crown jewel of the Lower East Side of New York and was the first house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in New York and the United States. For nearly 40 years, the synagogue served Jews, mostly immigrants, for their religious needs.
But within a few decades, the Jewish population migrated out of lower Manhattan, abandoning the once grand structure and leaving a skeletal congregation to pray at the small chapel, neglecting the building’s physical needs. Ultimately, the main building fell into ruin, pigeons occupied the cathedral-like archways and soot obscured the magnificent stained glass windows.
In the late 1980s, the synagogue was rediscovered and became the focus of a major restoration project, which took nearly 20 years and over $17 million. Today, with landmark status and deserved recognition for its important role in history, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is both a museum and a functioning house of worship.
The museum can be seen by guided tour, Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, go to eldridgestreet.org/synagogue.
Congregation Shearith Israel, New York, N.Y.
First North American Congregation
By contrast, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side overlooking Central Park is Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, founded in 1654. It was the first congregation in North America and the only one in New York until 1825. Among the ranks of its membership have been notable figures in Jewish-American history, such as Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, first Jewish flag officer in the United States Navy; Emma Lazarus, poet and author of “The New Colossus,” which appears on the Statue of Liberty; and Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, Supreme Court Justice.
The congregation was founded by 23 Jews of Spanish-Portuguese descent who fled Brazil in pursuit of religious freedom and landed on the shores of then-New Amsterdam. They faced opposition to settlement by Governor Peter Stuyvesant who did not want Jews to settle there. Yet, these brave immigrants fought to remain and established Shearith Israel Congregation. First gathering in rental space for religious services, the small congregation erected its first building in 1730 on Mill Street in lower Manhattan. Some of the furnishings of that first building are now in use in a replica of that sanctuary in the congregation’s current building, called The Little Synagogue.
The congregational cemetery from that time, the Chatham Square Cemetery located near what is now Chinatown, is preserved. Every year, a Memorial Day service is held there to honor the many congregants who served in the American Revolution. Although gated, one can see into this historic site.
Its current location, the congregation’s fifth building, opened in 1897. It is located on 70th Street and Central Park West. The floorboards of the reader’s desk and the Ner Tamid above the ark are said to date back to the Mill Street Synagogue.
Religious services are conducted daily and the congregation maintains archives of its history and its founding families. Information can be found at shearithisrael.org.
Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.
Oldest Synagogue Building in the United States
Along the coast of New England, Newport, R.I. is home to some of the most magnificent private homes in America and the oldest synagogue building in North America still standing, the Touro Synagogue. Completed and dedicated in 1763, Touro’s congregants, like those of Shearith Israel, were Sephardic Jews who had come to the colonies seeking religious freedom.
Named for its first spiritual leader, Isaac Touro, Touro Synagogue has a special place in American Jewish history, as President George Washington mentions it in a letter dated from 1790: “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.” The letter declared that the new nation would “… give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” These few words affirmed the founding fathers’ commitment to the principles of religious freedom as a cornerstone of democracy in America.
Designed by the Newport resident and architect of British descent, Peter Harrison, Touro Synagogue incorporates the elements of both Georgian and Colonial architecture and yet resembles the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues of northern Europe.
In 1946, an act of Congress under President Harry S. Truman made the synagogue a National Historic Site and in 2001, it became one of only 21 properties in the collection of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the first religious structure to receive such recognition.
President John F. Kennedy noted in 1963, “It (Touro) is not only the oldest Synagogue in America but also one of the oldest symbols of liberty. No better tradition exists than the history of Touro Synagogue’s great contribution to the goals of freedom and justice for all.”
For more information, visit tourosynagogue.org.
Lake Placid, N.Y.
Oldest Congregation in Adirondacks
Hundreds of miles to the north of the island of Manhattan are the verdant Adirondack Mountains. An outdoor enthusiast’s dream, the region provides sporting activities galore including hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and cycling in the summer months.
In the heart of the region lie numerous lakes, many of which have quaint towns on their shores. Lake Placid, perhaps the best known of them because it played host to two Winter Olympic Games, also is home to Lake Placid Synagogue, the oldest congregation in the Adirondacks. It held its first service in 1879 in the home of one of its congregants.
In 1903, the congregation had its own building and, with an influx of worshipers every summer, including Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who had a family “camp” on the lake, the congregation became the center of Jewish life in the region. Today, Shabbat services are held monthly for most of the year and during the summer months. Services are held weekly on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
For more information, go to lakeplacidsynagogue.org.
At one time there were two other synagogues in the area: Beth Joseph Synagogue in Tupper Lake, which now has landmark status, and a synagogue in Saranac Lake, which no longer exists. Beth Joseph is the oldest synagogue building in the area, dating back to 1905 with architecture resembling the houses of worship in Eastern Europe, from which many of its congregants came. After being closed for several decades due to a decline in population, Beth Joseph has been restored and is now open in the summer months, hosting Friday evening services, concerts and gallery exhibits.
For more information, northcountryfolklore.org/rvsp/bethjoseph.html