JUNE 5, 2015 | OLAM | 9
F E AT U R E
Changing The Face Of Community Shuls
Community Jewels BY SANDY ELLER
hree-hundred and thirty-three years have passed since the first synagogue was built in the United States, and, since then, countless others have been constructed, with many old-time shuls still in operation and listed as historic landmarks. While the New York Landmarks Conservancy has been maintaining and restoring landmark city buildings for over 40 years, its Sacred Sites Program was created in 1986 to assist houses of worship, distributing more than $8.7 million in grants. An effort dedicated exclusively to the city’s historic synagogues was launched five years ago and since then the Jewish Heritage Funds Grant Program has been providing funding to preserve the city’s most culturally-significant historic synagogues, enabling them to continue serving congregants while preserving their rich heritage. “We started systematically researching all the pre-war synagogues in the five boroughs and ended up focusing on those built before the 1970’s,” said Ann Friedman, director of the Sacred Sites Program. “We had a team of graduate students doing research over four summers and have put about fifteen synagogues on the National Register of Historic Places.” More than half of those shuls are Orthodox congregations located in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Being listed on the National Register brings certain benefits, including eligibility for grant funding from the Conservancy and the state. Preserving synagogues dating back as far as the 1800’s is no small task and the Sacred Sites Program helps shuls prioritize repair work, using its experience in landmark preservation and restoration. The program also helps synagogues administrations take advantage of available grants and staff members guide them through restoration projects. Grants awarded by the Sacred Sites Program comprise just a portion of the total amount needed for a project. “The congregation has to be ready to do serious fundraising and sometimes it might take a year or two or three but we are in it for the long haul,” said Friedman. The latest grant round took place last January. Four Orthodox synagogues were recently notified that they would be
receiving a combined total of $125,000 for assorted projects. The Lower East Side’s Community Synagogue was established in the 1950’s, purchasing a former Lutheran Church built in 1847. Congregants noticed an attic truss showing signs of wear in 2003 and a member of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy helped them obtain several grants and put them in touch with the Landmarks Conservancy. “They gave us a grant that was used for things that weren’t major structural elements, things that weren’t critical at the moment, but would be soon,” said Tessler. “They gave us a $35,000 grant initially that was used within a $320,000 masonry and roof restoration project.”
Young Israel of Flatbush
A new grant of $25,000 to be applied to a $310,000 project to stabilize the shul’s north wall and sanctuary ceiling will be enormously helpful, noted Tessler. “There are pieces of plaster and paint coming down from the ceiling from previous leaks. There are so many items that are not critical, in the sense that the building won’t fall down if we don’t take care of them, but these are the small projects that slip between the cracks if you don’t address them.” Having merged recently with another nearby shul, Community Synagogue has become a vibrant institution, making the need for repairs more important than ever. “We can easily have 125 people on Shabbos and we have young people who are here every week,” said Tessler. “It’s really leibidik now.” For Jane Blumenstein, president of Congregation Ramth Orah on Manhattan’s
Upper West Side, the Jewish Heritage Fund has been a lifesaver. “I have done a lot of different things for the synagogue, but when it came to managing the gargantuan task of prioritizing what needed to be done and how to get money, I was at a loss,” observed Blumenstein. After her first meeting with Friedman, Blumenstein applied for a grant of $7,500 to be used for architectural expenses. “It helped us figure out our priorities. Ann was there with us, holding our hand every step of the way, and giving us immense information on working with an old run-down New York City building.” Part of the restoration process for Ramath Orah, built in the 1920’s, was placing the synagogue on the National Historic Register. “Ann connected us with an architectural student at Columbia who did our application as part of his final project,” recalled Blumenstein. “He was right here in the neighborhood and was able to come and take pictures, exactly what we needed to make this happen.” Working with the Sacred Sites Program was the equivalent of a crash course in historic building renovation for Blumenstein. “We have a plan that Ann helped us make and now that we have priorities and ideas we can go to people and ask them for funding,” said Blumenstein. “Having a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund gives legitimacy to the whole process.” Ramath’s Orah’s latest pledge from the Jewish Heritage Fund is for $50,000 to be used in a $724,000 project to address problems with the roof, masonry and the flue.
“This is a long-term investment in the well being of our building,” remarked Blumenstein. “Until now we have been fixing things when emergencies arose, but I am trying to pre-empt emergencies so that we don’t have to move the sanctuary to the social hall if the roof falls in.” The first large Modern Orthodox synagogue in Midwood, the Young Israel of Flatbush, was built in 1923, a Moorish revival building with magnificent bronze doors. Understanding the importance of maintaining a nearly century-old building, shul president Stephan Lieberman reached out to the Sacred Sites program several years ago. “We knew about the historical value of the building and its architectural significance, but Ann taught me so much about the architecture, about the Moorish style,” said Lieberman. “I have learned so much about the building by getting involved. I have been davening in the shul my whole life but I am noticing things now that I never noticed before.” The latest Jewish Heritage Grant will provide the Young Israel with $25,000 towards the total cost of restoring the synagogue’s brass doors, a $100,000 project. “We want to mirror the architecture of the building,” explained Lieberman. “We don’t want to ruin that.” Because of its age, Lieberman expects the synagogue will need additional work. He is confident that the Sacred Sites Program will continue to partner with the Young Israel. “They are helping us and we look forward to them helping us down the road with the things a 90-year-old building needs,” said Lieberman. “The roof, the facade, the magnificent stained glass windows will all need work. The people from the Sacred Sites Program are so much into this. You can see when they come in and walk around the shul that they are in awe. You can see their passion for architecture and making sure that all of this is not lost.” Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at email@example.com.