Rabbi Pesach Ackerman, the 83-year-old rabbi of the historic 102-year-old
Anshe Mezeritch synagogue, located at 415 E. Sixth Street, sat in the meditative silence of his time-worn sanctuary and worried about the future of Orthodox synagogues in a neighborhood once bustling with a large immigrant Jewish population and dozens of houses of worship.
Today, however, in a neighborhood bordered by Houston Street on the South, Fourteenth Street on the North, Avenue D on the East and the Bowery on the West, only four synagogues remain and one of them -- The Town and Village Synagogue at 334 E. 14th Street -- is not Orthodox.
Between the 1890s and the late 1940s this was a neighborhood where there once were as many as 100 Orthodox synagogues located here -- most of them small, storefront- type “shuls.” And of the three remaining Orthodox synagogues, two of them – Anshe Mezeritch and Community Synagogue, which is at 325 E. 6th Street -- are struggling to retain a presence in the neighborhood amidst financial and other difficulties.
Yet leaders of both these religious institutions remain optimistic about their synagogues’ future existence, as does the rabbi of the recently-opened Chabad Serving NYU Orthodox synagogue at 353 Bowery.
Rabbi Ackerman’s face lit up as he nostalgically recalled a time in the neighborhood more than 50 years ago, before the once-thriving Jewish community began to shrink significantly due to demographic shifts and economic mobility.
“When I first came here about 40 years ago to be the rabbi,” he recalled, “on Friday nights for the Sabbath we had about 45 people in attendance. Today we struggle just to get ten. It’s one of our biggest problems and challenges – to get more people in here.”
“Over the years it started to change,” he continued. “The young Jews wanted to move out of the neighborhood and better themselves. And who can blame them? The Jews are the kind of people who always want to better themselves. So they moved to Brooklyn and they moved to Queens. And then the old-timers began to die out.”
Back then, he recollected, even the streets throughout the area were crowded with Orthodox Jews who lived and worked here. “There were dozens of synagogues everywhere and some blocks even had two or three synagogues,” he said. “And they were filled. It was a Jewish world here. It was wonderful. On the Sabbath you really felt it with all the synagogues packed with people.”
The rabbi paused for a few moments as he relived those days in his mind, while overhead four antique fans revolved slowly and, occasionally, small flakes of plaster fall from the tin ceiling that has long been in need of repair.
“I feel terribly that this is all gone,” Rabbi Ackerman continued. “But this is what happens. This is what life is. Things change all the time and no one lives forever.”
The rabbi forcefully asserted that no matter what problems may beset his temple, “It will last. People will come back to our synagogue because they’re seeking authenticity. They want something that is real and that’s what we’ve been offering here for more than a hundred years - Authentic Judaism in an old-fashioned setting. When they come in here to pray they feel something.”
He added that it would take more than a million dollars to restore his aging structure, but he had faith that despite the synagogue’s meager financial resources, this restoration would take place and his shul would continue to be an active one in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, at the glassy new Chabad Serving NYU synagogue, located on the second and third floors of a 15-story condominium building designed by Robert Scarano, Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn sees his religious institution as a sign of things to come for the neighborhood.
“Is our shul the bright future of this area? I’d say yes, thank G-d,” Rabbi Korn said. “We are working with young people and they are our future. We and the NYU
Bronfman center are privileged to work with the students, who are the next generation of Jewish people in our neighborhood.”
The rabbi said that most of these Jewish students live in the area and “are even staying after graduation. They are bringing vitality while they are here. I believe more of this young community will gather here and that things will expand in the near future. The area is unique, the constituents are unique and our roots are here.”
Rabbi Korn, whose synagogue opened its doors in July, said he believed that the other two remaining Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood are also here for the long run. “I don’t believe it’s over for the remaining shuls,” he said.
“I know the Community Synagogue very well and I believe that it can have a bright future, too. It just needs to become filled by some more key young members - and G-d willing it will.”
At the Community Synagogue, meanwhile, treasurer Jack Lebewohl predicted that his house of worship, which first opened its doors in l940, will increase its presence in the neighborhood. The historic structure is housed in what once was the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the building dates back to pre-Civil War days.
The church closed on June 15, 1904, when The General Slocum caught fire and sank in New York’s East River. At the time of the accident the boat was on a chartered run carrying members of the church to a picnic. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died. The accident caused the end of “Little Germany” as the population of the area further shifted to Eastern European Jews.
Lebewohl said he was convinced that “the neighborhood’s transient Jewish population is key to the area. Reaching out to them and other organizations to make the building more known and accessible is what we’re trying to do.”
He cited as an example the synagogue’s effort to do outreach to an organization that is now sponsoring successful Friday night dinners at the synagogue. It is also reaching out to the alumni of the school/synagogue once known as the East Side Hebrew Institute, many of whom became part of the founding of the Community Synagogue.
“We’re reaching out and hoping for renewed acceptance and attendees,” Lebewohl said. “And we’re also reaching out to people through our website and emails.”
Lebewohl further noted that attendance at the Community Synagogue’s Sabbath services was stronger than it was a year ago. “This synagogue is not dying,” he emphasized.
The treasurer also said that the influx of visitors to this once famous Jewish neighborhood -- which at one time housed dozens of Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue -- and the synagogue’s East Village location is “part of its potential and growing appeal.”
Regarding the synagogue’s current financial difficulties, which recently resulted in its rabbi being laid off, Lebewohl said that money was not a crucial issue. “No shul ever closed because of lack of money. It is lack of people. We are growing in interest, and there is a bright future ahead.”