About the Synagogue Space

Unfortunately, Synagogue Space as an arts organization ceased to exist shortly after the showing of the One World Postal Art Show. Until that time, Synagogue Space was a place to show artwork and projects affiliated with the Danspace Workshop. It was housed in a tiny synagogue on East First Street near Avenue A across from Katz's Deli on Houston on the Lower East Side of New York.

Part of the mission chosen by the directors of The Synagogue Space was to preserve the aesthetic integrity of the synagogue building, and to foster an appreciation of its history. That is what this web page is about.

The building, located at 108 East First Street was built in 1926 as a synagogue for Congregation Masas Benjamin, made up of immigrants from the Galician village of Podhajce (pronounced pod-IYET-sah). This village was home to a Jewish community of almost 3,000 persons. In Autumn 1942 the Nazis removed the inhabitants to the camp at Belzec for extermination. The Jewish community in Podhajce no longer exists.

The Congregation of the People of Podhajce no longer exists, either. The once-thriving Jewish community of the Lower East Side has shrunk significantly, due to the far more benign forces of demographic shift and economic mobility. Left in theMap of Podhajce Region wake are dozens of small synagogues, many of which have been demolished or converted into apartment buildings. While it is not violent pogroms which have driven the former congregants from the neighborhood, but rather economic success, the sight of a formerly vibrant synagogue left to crumble into disrepair is no less lamentable.

Preserving the aesthetic integrity of this particular synagogue building, and the rich history of this neighborhood remains as important to the creator of the One World Postal Art Show as it was to the hosts.

History of the Building

Congregation Masas Benjamin Anshe Podhajce was organized in 1895 by immigrants from the village of Podhajce (pronounced pod-IYET-sah) in Galicia (southeastern Poland). In 1926 the congregation bought a three-story building at 108 East First Street which they extended and restructured to be a synagogue. Today, the building includes a two-story high sanctuary with stained glass windows and skylight.

The building, modified as a synagogue, consisted of a first floor study, a second floor sanctuary, and a third floor women's section. The sanctuary is decorated with the images of the twelve Zodiac signs and the associated months of the Jewish calendar. A tall marble tablet on the sanctuary wall lists in Hebrew the names of deceased members of the congregation. Marble inscriptions outside the sanctuary list the congregations officers and contributors to the synagogue. The front gate reads, in Yiddish, "Contributed by the Podhajce Ladies Auxiliary."

As early as the 1920s, the building was being shared with another congregation calling itself Congregation Rodeph Shalom Independent Podhajce. By the early 1980s the building was being used by Congregation Kochob Jacob Anshe Kamenitz-Lit (of Kamenitz, Lithuania). The building lay idle from about 1985 until 1990, when it became home to Congregation Beth Yitzchok. The Synagogue Space was founded in 1995. The beautiful building where Synagogue Space was once located is now a private residence and has undergone extensive rennovations.

About the Town of Podhajce

Map of Podhajce Region Located in Eastern Galicia, Podhajce was the property of a variety of states. Prior to the First World War, Podhajce was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; between the wars it was Polish territory; today it is the Ukranian town of Podgaitsy.

The 1970 Encyclopedia Judaica contains the following entry:

Podgaitsy (Pol. Podhajce), city, W. Tarnopol Oblast, Ukranian S.S.R. A Jewish community existed in Podgaitsy during the 16th century. At the beginning of the 17th century the rabbinical seat was held by Benjamin Aaron b. Abraham Solnik, who died in 1610. He published a collection of 112 responsa and legal novellae in his work Masat Benjamin. After the invasion of the town by the Tatars in 1667 and the massacre which they perpetrated among the Jews, R. Ze'ev b. Judah Leib wrote an elegy in memory of the victims. According to the census of 1764 th ere were 1,079 Jews. During the 19th century, under Austrian rule, the Jewish population increased, and by 1910 numbered about 6,000. However, Podgaitsy's importance subsequently declined and according to the census of 1931 only 2,872 Jews were left.

Holocaust Period When the war broke out between Germany and the U.S.S.R. (June 22, 1941), Podgaitsy was occupied by the Germans, and the Jews immediately became victims of attacks by the Ukranian population. They were forced to pay fines, the ir movement was restricted outside the city, and they were subject to forced labor. L. Lilenfeld headed the Judenrat. In the winter of 1941/42 many died from hunger and disease. On Sept. 21, 1942, over 1,000 Jews were sent to the Belzec death camp, and on October 30, 1,500 people were sent there. Survivors of the community tried to find shelter in neighboring forests; due to informers, however, many fell into German hands and were executed. On June 6, 1943, the community was completely liquidated and the ghetto and the city were declared judenrein. After the war the community was not reconstituted.

About the Lower East Side

The Lower East Side of New York has a long history as one of the city's most colorful ethnic neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1830s the Lower East Side was largely German, bearing the nickname "Kleindeutschland." Among these ethnic Germans was a small community of German-born Jews. Following the political unrest in Europe after 1848, a small wave of German Jews arrived in New York, settling on the Lower East Side.

Kosher chicken store on Hester Street
(B+W), 1937 The year 1880 is regarded as the beginning of the massive immigration which brought over two million Jews to America. As the Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived on the Lower East Side in large numbers, the German-speaking Jews moved out of the neighborhood to the more affluent neighborhoods of upper Manhattan. By 1905, the high-point of immigration, the neighborhood was home to 350 active congregations, most of which operated out of storefront shuls. There were a full 60 synagogue buildings in the neighborhood. (Reference: The Synagogues of the Lower East Side by Jo Renee Fine and Gerard R. Wolfe)

By the 1900s, many families were moving over the bridge to Brooklyn or up to The Bronx, however they continued to be replaced by a flow of new immigrants. When Congress restricted immigration in 1924, those leaving the neighborhood were no longer being replaced by fellow Eastern-European Jews. The population dwindled, and in the 1950s began to be replaced by immigrants from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood also saw the development of a noteable Polish and Ukranian community, which continues to the present. In the 1960s, artists who could no longer afford the rising rents of Greenwich Village began moving here, giving rise to the East Village in the area north of Houston Street. In the last twenty years, Chinatown has expanded into much of the southern part of the neighborhood, and there is a continuing influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

Williamsburg Bridge (B+W), 1936 As a result, the Lower East Side today is an ethnic mix, with world-famous kosher pickles being sold down the block from the finest Chinese pork buns and heaping plates of arroz con habichuelas, not far from purveyors of homemade kielbasa and the social scene of hip coffee houses. Small off-off Broadway theaters and underground art galleries compete for attention with shops selling bar mitzvah sets and others offering good-luck candles decorated with Carribbean religious motifs. There is no doubt that the Lower East Side remains one of New York City's most vibrant and fascinating neighborhoods.

Other Synagogues

Still-Functioning Synagogues of the Lower East Side

Facade of the BuildingEldridge Street Synagogue, 14 Eldridge Street, 212-619-0888
Home to Khal Adas Jeshurun with Anshe Lubz, the congregation has not missed a Shabbos service since the construction of this National Landmark building in 1887. Badly damaged by decades of neglect, the elaborate main sanctuary was closed for more than 30 years. Today it is being restored by the not-for-profit Eldridge St reet Project, which gives tours of the building. Call for information.
First Roumanian-American Congregation, 89 Rivington Street, 212-673-2835
This large edifice, built originally as a Methodist Church, was taken over by the current congregation around 1890. The main sanctuary, no longer used by the shrinking membership, was renown for hosting performances of the most esteemed cantors of the time.

Chasam Sopher, 8 Clinton Street, 212-777-5140
Built in 1853 for the German-Jewish Congregation Rodeph Shalom, which joined the Reform movement and moved to the Upper West Side. The building was recently renovated by a wealthy patron, though the congregation remains quite small.

Kehila Kadosha Janina, 280 Broome Street, 212-431-1619
A small Sephardic synagogue built in 1927 (congregation formed in 1906) by Jews from Janina (Ionina), Greece. A museum devoted to these Romaniot Jews is being developed on the premises.

B'nai Jacob Anshe Brzezan, 180 Stanton Street
A small synagogue built in 1913 by immigrants from Brzezan, Poland.

Adas Yisroel Anshe Mezeritch, 415 East 6th Street
Another small synagogue built by Polish immigrants (from Mezeritch). The building was constructed in 1910.

Defunct Synagogues of Interest

Former Anshe Chesed/Anshe Slonim, 172 Norfolk Street
A cavernous neo-Gothic structure built in 1850, this structure was designed after the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. The oldest synagogue building in New York City, it was abandoned in 1974. The building fell into disrepair until purchased in 1986 by the Angel Orensanz, a Spanish-Jewish sculptor of some renown. The building is currently home to the Angel Orensanz Foundation which hosts various artistic events.

Former Erste Warshawer Congregation, 60 Rivington Street
This synagogue was abandoned in the late 1970s, but was given a new lease on life when it was purchased by Jewish sculptor Hale Gurland, who transformed it into a studio for his large metalwork sculptures.First Roumanian-American Congregation

The First Roumanian-American Synagogue on Rivington Street has stood for generations as a landmark of the Lower East Side. The building at 89 Rivington Street was originally built between around 1857 as the German Evangelical Church. Designed to convert Jews, it was bought in 1864 by Shaaray Hashomayim, (Gates of Heaven), New Yorkıs oldest Orthodox German-Jewish congregation. It reverted to a church in 1890, when a Methodist mission society moved the Allen Street Memorial Church here. Finally the current congregation bought it in 1902 and quickly became one of the most celebrated synagogues in the thriving Jewish neighborhood that was the Lower East Side.

One of the oldest synagogues in the city, it has a past as rich as the neighborhood itself. The voices of such great cantors as Moishe Oysher, Yossele Rosenblatt, Moishe Koussevitsky, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker have all resounded through the wonderful acoustics of the Roumanishe Shul. It earned the nickname "The Cantor's Carnegie Hall" because of its many famous congregants, mostly in music, but it also included as a congregant the comedian George Burns, and his compadres Red Buttons and Eddie Cantor, who also sang in the choir.

The Romanesque-style building got a well-deserved facelift in the 1990s. The congregation had been dwindling for many years. Graffiti and peeling paint were removed from the facade, making the synagogue as handsome as it looked in decades. On Shabbos and holidays, the shul served residents of the local Jewish community. The shul continued to offer daily services at 8 am and 5 pm, primarily attended by theFacade of the Building shopkeepers from adjacent Orchard Street. Then in January 2006, its roof collapsed into its famous sanctuary and remained off limits even to congregants as city inspectors warned of instability in one of its walls. Nine residents of an adjacent apartment building at 87 Rivington Street, including two children, were being temporarily housed in hotels because of the threat of further deterioration. Congregants have pledged to repair their badly damaged, 150-year-old building, or else build anew in the same spot.

For a more in-depth examination of the history of these congregations, refer to:
The Synagogues of the Lower East Side by Jo Renee Fine (text by Gerard R. Wolfe)
Washington Mews Books (a Division of New York University Press), NY, 1978

About the Space Directors

The three Directors of The Synagogue Space were:
Jeffrey Bock
Timothy W. Fryberger
Rocky Kenworthy

The person who made the web pages- now defunct and gone- that this HTML page is based on was:

Jeffrey Bock

I was able to re-create some of the content, combine everything he did onto this one page and add new pictures and updated links. I am glad Jeff originally made the pages and wrote the copy. I am also grateful that the directors of the space saw the One World Postal Art Show as something that fit into what they were trying to do with their organziation.

-Mark Bloch 2006


Some interesting Lower East Side historical links