Squeezed between 38th and 39th street on 6th Avenue is a short, stubborn limestone facade: the Millinery Synagogue. Built in 1948, the Millinery Synagogue served the Garment District with its 60 hat firms and over 15,000 employees, many of them religiously observant Jews seeking a place to say kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). In its heyday, the 128-seat, 1000+ member synagogue was so in-demand that groups prayed in shifts. Though the past few decades have been marked by low attendance and serious neglect, the synagogue’s new leadership is now reviving both the building and community.
The synagogue’s congregation began meeting in a loft building in 1938, but by 1948 had raised the $150,000 for a new home. Designed by Poland-born, Yale-educated H. I. Feldman (an architect responsible for many Art Deco buildings along the Grand Concourse) the Millinery Synagogue is executed in a fairly stern moderne style, though it also has its charms. Two sets of three stained-glass windows on either side of the sanctuary stage are adorned with a Torah scroll, a Star of David, and the Ten Commandments. When viewed from inside the Ladies Gallery, the muted colors of the three-paneled stained glass window burst into jewel-like tones.
The walls of the main sanctuary are covered in heavy bronze memorial plaques with names of congregants long gone, orange lights twinkling here and there. In its golden years, the space was not only sacred but social, hosting hatmaker groups such as the Millinery Bowling League, the Millinery Textile Club, and the Millinery Salesman Union. One plaque celebrates board president Moe Brillstein, a milliner whose son would grow up to become the famed Hollywood manager Bernie Brillstein. Another plaque commemorates Aaron Einhorn, former executive director of the Eastern Women’s Headwear Association.
Over the years, as the hatmakers migrated and the regular service-goers decreased, the synagogue’s congregation dwindled and the building fell into disrepair. In 2014, a boiler pipe burst, warping the floorboards, and general neglect of the building led to a trashed Ladies Gallery, mildewed books, and peeling paint. In January 2017, however, the board welcomed a new leadership team, including a new rabbi. 600 bags of garbage later, there’s still a lot of repair work to be done, but the building is headed in a better direction.
The new Rabbi Avrohom Kahn has big plans for the revived space: “A synagogue that’s just for prayer – with no good works – is lacking in its mission. Our plan is to make a center for Judaism in Midtown that offers classes, tutorials, social events with a component of Jewish education and more to help Jews understand and explore their heritage.”
Expect less Jewish hatmakers but certainly more Jews in all kinds of headcoverings on the Milllinery Center Synagogue’s Facebook page.
Next, check out The Untapped Guide to the Garment District and The Top 10 Secrets of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum in NYC. Get in touch with the author @gnomikonheels.