In response to our roundup of NYC church conversions a few weeks ago, Untapped Cities reader Ellen Levitt pointed out that New York has a number of converted or lost synagogues with fascinating stories as well. Levitt is also the driving force behind the project, The Lost Synagogues of New York City. Published as a series of books by borough, Levitt hopes that through highlighting the repurposing of historical buildings, “people will look more carefully wherever they walk, drive or bike.” Today we’re bringing you five ex-shuls that have been prominent in local history.
1. Angel Orensanz Center
Angel Orensanz Center (172 Norfolk Street, Lower East Side): Currently serving as an arts center, the oldest synagogue in NYC opened in 1850 as the Ansche Chesed Synagogue. At the time, it was the largest synagogue in the country, and services were conducted in German. After multiple shifts in ownership, the space was abandoned in the 1970s before Angel Orensanz, a Jewish Spanish artist, converted it into a gallery and performance space. The local Reform Shul of New York still holds holiday services here twice a year. Plus, the place has had its fair share of celebrity visits: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were married here, composer Philip Glass and Florence + The Machine have hosted concerts.
The Angel Orensanz Center looks phenomenal as an artistic and performance space.
2. Meseritz Shul
The building’s facade hides its deteriorating interiors in 2013
Meseritz Shul (415 E. 6th St, East Village): One of the smallest and most narrow urban synagogues of New York, this 1888 building’s interior has crumbled. In order to save it, the congregation board leased the synagogue to have its interior converted into condos. The building will still be a functioning synagogue, as services will continue to take place in the basement. The building’s gorgeous facade will remain untouched, as it’s part of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, and in fact as seen in the updated photograph below, got an upgrade:
Deity (378 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn): The synagogue in Beorum Hill has unclear beginnings. But in 1917, whatever existed there became the the Talmud Torah Beth Jacob Joseph, a school and synagogue. In the ’70s, the building switched functions twice, first to a heating/AC company and then to an antique shop. Finally, in 2004, the former shul became the aptly named Deity, first a nightclub, although it never reached the Limelight’s highs (or lows). Now, it’s transitioned into a high-end lounge and event space.
Beautiful judaic symbols and Hebrew script decorate the entrance to Deity.
4. Mount Olivet Baptist Church
The synagogue’s/church’s Corinthian pillars exemplify Neoclassical architecture.
Mount Olivet Baptist Church (120th and Lenox Avenue): Many synagogues in New York have been converted into churches. The Temple Israel of the City of New York was founded in 1873 and is still active today in Harlem. One of its many previous homes was a 1907 Harlem building, constructed for the synagogue in the Neoclassical style. Perhaps it was the resemblance to a Roman temple that caused Mount Olivet to acquire it in 1925. Thankfully, the influential black Baptist congregation has left most of the judaica intact, including an ark and Star of David fanlights.
Jewish stars are omnipresent in this converted church.
5. Sixth Street Community Center
Sixth Street Community Center (636 E. 6th Street): From 1905 until the ’70s, this building in the East Village was a functioning synagogue for the Congregation Ahawath Yeshurun Shar’a Torah. Since then, it has served as a nonprofit health center seeking to educate and empower lower-income households in the area. For instance, the center runs a Community Supported Agriculture program that supplies members with local produce. Although the interior of the building has been renovated and the entrance painted over, most of the former shul’s exterior artistry has been preserved or restored. Check out the plaque bearing the synagogue’s name that is still in place above the entrance.
Get in touch with the author @YiinYangYale.