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In 2007, the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side completed its renovation after a 20-year, $20 million effort. However, its history began more than a century before that. Opened in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was one of the first erected in the United States by Eastern European Jews. In 1987, local residents and urban preservationists joined forces to save the stunning architectural marvel from the verge of collapse. In September 2022, the synagogue is celebrating its 135th anniversary. Below are 10 of our favorite secrets about this stunning historical space.

Secrets of the Lower East Side Tour & Tasting

1. The Main Sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue Was Abandoned

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Photograph by Kate Milford from Museum at Eldridge Street 

Many visitors find this fact shocking today, but for decades, the main sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue sat in a state of abandonment. NYU professor Gerard Wolfe rediscovered the sanctuary in the 1970s as he was writing his book, The Synagogues of the Lower East Side. Eldridge Street was one of the spaces he desperately wanted to visit and when finally got access, this is the scene he wrote, “I found the doors of the sanctuary warped shut. I pulled them open and stepped inside, and my hair stood on end. It was like the Twilight Zone, like going into the past.”

Upon the sanctuary’s discovery, the dust inside was so thick one could write in it, and cobwebs hung between the pillars. There was extensive water damage to the dome, with water pouring in from the openings. Pigeons had taken root in the balcony. Empty windows sat where stained glass once let in light, and fragments of walls were missing. As the Museum at Eldridge Street describes in their interactive exhibition, “Prayer books and prayer shawls were scattered on benches, as if waiting for services to resume.”