Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, No. 2 / Summer 1997
Interpreting Historic Synagogues


by Amy Waterman, Executive Director

The Eldridge Street project (ESP) recently celebrated two anniversaries. It has been ten years since the effort to restore the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue was begun and five years since public cultural and educational programs were initiated at the site. ESP is now one third through an estimated $8-10 million dollar restoration of the National Historic Landmark, erected in 1887 by America's oldest Eastern European congregation. Each year, more than 15,000 visitors from all over the world attend tours, lectures, concerts and family workshops at this symbo1 of Jewish continuity in America, located in the immigrant gateway: New York's Lower East Side. Recent ESP-sponsored special events have included cantorial music concerts, a "Klez For Kids'' program, rugelach baking lessons, and an installation about immigrant women.

On Interpretation
Since 1991 the not-for-profit Eldridge Street Project has invited tourists, students and families to make the Eldridge Street Synagogue an essential stop on the Jewish heritage trail. We did not, however, anticipate the range of responses to the space and the history it evokes, nor did we imagine that these responses would affect our preservation philosophy and plans.

So, what do visitors encounter when they step foot inside? Architecture critic Christopher Gray describes the sanctuary as "ringed by a gallery and heavy with dust and moldy air. Light streams through the large windows on four sides to illuminate a tangled litter of pews, fallen plasterwork and original mural decoration, now dark with age. On the gallery level the light is all around, even under you, and you can see the dreamy, fantastical decoration of the upper walls and ceiling. But there are also large areas of peeling paint, and man-sized holes in the plaster. Even though the main floor has been tidied up, there is still the sense that you have entered a secret place."

The space holds different secrets for everyone who visits. The synagogue is an historic artifact, an architectural landmark, a continuing, active house of worship, and a museum. But what matters more than defining the synagogue by one or another of its contemporary meanings or functions, is to recognize that the thread connecting those meanings is not bricks and mortar but humans. The synagogue is important as a container -- of prayer, people, and memories. Therefore, staff has paid increasing attention to the interaction the takes place between this special, "secret" place and the people who walk through its doors.

For years we'd proposed to identify a specific moment -- the 1887 opening date or 1909 -- when electrification was complete, and to restore the building fully to that moment. Five years of visitor responses changed our point of view. We're struck by how many want to preserve the building more or less as it is today.

As Gray states, "(t)here are many synagogues and churches in town, of various dates that have been largely or completely restored yet no one comes to visit them, and such buildings exercise little power over those who do. And of those who do, how many gasp? Imagine the grade-schoolers who visit you and then visit Fraunces Tavern - which one will they remember? Which one will they tell their parents about at the dinner table? Why, it's the difference between a visit to Disneyland and … the Yukon." And, he may be correct about young people. Here is one thirteen year-olds’ reaction:

"I think it should be preserved as a ruin. It's so big and drafty and beautiful and old. You feel so …. here! I think that every aspect of the building makes you feel, like it has a life or … a ghost of its own. The synagogue is so wonderful and real the way it is that you can hear the prayers in Hebrew and Yiddish like whispers through a gigantic empty hall of history."

We’ve remembered that people admire old buildings for their ‘oldness’ -- the evidence of human use and habitation. We must preserve the character of the synagogue in its vulnerable condition, while being truthful and revealing of other moments in its history -- including its proudest and most exuberant opening days.

When we invited the public to visit the synagogue again five years ago, we hoped they would be gratified by the opportunity to visit a place that had been such a focal institution for their ancestors. We hoped they would agree with us that it was a beautiful and uplifting place. We thought the synagogue was an ideal focal point for teaching about Jewish culture, history, and architecture. We didn't think about the impulses that would attract them to Eldridge Street. Nor did we think we'd have to do much with maximizing their experience. And we didn't anticipate our very large multi-cultural audience.

A second lesson. We wanted to exploit and contrast that which is familiar with that which is exotic, to allow people to feel comfortable and "at home" yet also leave feeling inspired, recognizing the ‘specialness’ of their encounter. We realized quickly that food makes people feel at home, and we've struck gold with a program that combines a tour and a rugelach baking-lesson. Feeling comfortable also means understanding the lay of the land. So, originally, the interpretive dimension of the Eldridge Street project conceived of the synagogue as a 'laboratory' to teach about itself and other synagogues.

Many programs at Eldridge Street explain the structure, activity and symbolism of its ritual spaces and objects, but visitors don't need much coaching to get their bearings. Often they are more expert than the synagogue or museum educators they encounter. To experience Eldridge Street, one doesn’t need to be ‘Jewishly’ learned or a historian of the Lower East Side.

Another lesson we’ve learned is to let the building speak for itself. There is a special character to the sound, or absence of sound, in the space. There are also affecting, tangible marks left behind by previous users including indentations in the floor which literally let visitors stand in the footsteps of their forebears. Where the damage in the domes is visible, where the wood lath is exposed, and where windows are temporarily missing causes people to become sad. But they're also led to feel concerned and protective. Visitors are moved, whether they’ve come for reasons or nostalgia, religious commitment or simply to see something old and beautiful.

We've learned not to stand in the way, not to just lecture. We let visitors wander through the space at first, rather than guide them to our favorite spots. Our visitors experience the synagogue in quiet. It is, after all, a sanctuary -- one of the truly peaceful spots New York has to offer. Sometimes we even let them lie down on the pews and look up to feel how big it is or take them up to the balcony to show them that, if the women were in a separate place, they were also in the best place. We let our visitors just keep talking -- disclosing, unburdening, remembering. This means we find out so much more about who we're talking to before we begin to talk.

Jews historically have been (are) obsessed with notions of disconnectedness and diaspora. Yet Eldridge Street is a place built to last, and it has lasted to exemplify the optimism of its founders who meant to stay. New York was not merely a safe haven or a second best. So we view the project as one of continuity, of reality, of concreteness. When we can actually commit an act in a space, make it our own, the space becomes even more powerful. For, just like the nineteenth-century immigrants who built the Synagogue, our visitors are making a pilgrimage. If one understands that concept properly, it matters equally what one brings to the destination as what one encounters. Only the combination of the two can affect one's life thereafter.

by Susan Hoffman Fishman, Curator and Director

Photo: Former congregation Beth El, Hartford, CT, now Charter Oak Cultural Center

The Charter Oak Cultural Center, located in a poor neighborhood south of downtown Hartford, Connecticut, has the dual mission of providing multicultural arts, humanities and educational programs and performances to the residents of Greater Hartford and of restoring the building and providing programs, and interpretive materials on Connecticut's first synagogue and Hartford's Jewish community. The two missions have not always been equally balanced. Only recently has the enormous potential that these two programs offer to each other been understood. What is the potential? The historic building and its contemporary multicultural programs provide the opportunity to teach the non-Jewish community about Jews and Judaism and, conversely, to teach Jews about other cultures. These communities can discover common historical struggles and experiences. Tolerance and appreciation of cultural diversity can blossom.

Built as Connecticut's first synagogue, the edifice stood as a magnificent symbol of freedom in what was then a neighborhood where Hartford's non-Jewish elite resided. The Temple represented the triumph of its founding community which in 1843, literally petitioned the Connecticut State Legislature change the law so Jews could worship legally, own property and bury their dead. Congregation Beth Israel, Hartford's first Jewish community, was formed after the decision and first met in a former Baptist church . The synagogue on Charter Oak Avenue was built in 1876 and the Congregation remained there until 1935 when they relocated to the suburbs. The Calvary Temple bought the building. They too, left for the suburbs, in 1972. The building was slated for demolition when the Charter Oak Temple Restoration Association (COTRA) resolved, in the late 1970s, to save it. COTRA consisted primarily of Hartford Jews who belonged to a growing back-to-the-city movement. Some were looking for an alternate approach to Judaism and were forming a new havurah. Others were more interested in the history of the site. The group purchased the building from the City of Hartford but was then faced with the decision of what to do with the space. At first, the decision was left unresolved because the building needed so much work before it could be used at all. But a few decisions were made that influenced its destiny as a Jewish institution.

The first board of COTRA agreed that even if it was restored to its original appearance as a house of worship the site could not function as a synagogue in the city and could not hold any form of religious ceremonies. The Center wanted to avoid conflict with Congregation Beth Israel, the area's largest Reform synagogue, but the Board was also wanted to keep the Center away from explosive Jewish community issues: mixed marriages and rite of passage ceremonies celebrated outside existing synagogues.

The roof was replaced, the cellar drained, the exterior repaired. When it was time to consider the interior, the decision of the building’s use had to be faced. It was decided that the building would best serve as a multicultural center with a performance space in the former sanctuary and a gallery downstairs in the former vestry/school area. The name was changed to the Charter Oak Cultural Center and the Center developed a full program of exhibitions and performances. Its identity as a historic Jewish space, however, diminished. The mainstream Jewish community was reluctant to support a program that didn't have anything to offer other than a building with a past.

Then in 1992, the Board president urged the Center to develop a major exhibition, encompassing the entire building, which would tell the story of the building and its founding community, and also restore one of the sanctuary bays to its 1876 condition, including elaborate wall stenciling and a stained glass window. The exhibit was a huge success and demonstrated to the Jewish community in very visible terms what the building could look like if it was fully restored and what potential it had as a historic site. Within the next few years, the Board and Center underwent restructuring and self analysis. Long-standing Jewish Board members who had been with the organization, in some cases since its inception, left the board to allow for more balanced representation from the Center's three major constituencies (Jewish, African American and Puerto Rican). Three advisory committees were designed: one for Cultural Arts Programming, one for Education and one for Jewish Heritage, with commitment made that all the program areas were represented equally in budget, staffing and planning.

Efforts to continue restoration of the sanctuary interior were redoubled. Today, the bimah and six windows and bays have been restored with three more planned in the coming year. An interactive installation in the sanctuary for visitors to better make the building an important regional historic site and tourist destination is planned. Programs to interpret 19th-century Jewish Hartford have been designed.

In 1995, a stencil workshop was conducted for third-grade students from the neighborhood Spanish bi-lingual elementary school, and from a Jewish bi-lingual school in West Hartford. The stencil project was chosen because stenciling was an important part of the building's design and because the Center was participating in a state art program sponsored by the new Connecticut Children’s Medical Center which wanted children to decorate the new institution. The children learned about the history of the Jews of Connecticut and the history of the building. They had a wonderful time learning stenciling, designed a project for the hospital, and grew fond of each other.

The second project was an inter-generational oral history program. In 1996, the Center invited 100 middle school students from urban and suburban schools to interview 18 descendants of Congregation Beth Israel. The 100 students came to the Center after having spent time in their own classes developing questions and practicing interviewing skills. Their teachers had undergone training at the Center and had received curriculum materials for classroom use. The kids met with the elderly descendants for hour-long sessions on 4 separate days. The children were not Jewish and many had not ever met a Jew before. They debated, they laughed. The seniors showed pictures of themselves as children and talked about life "in the old days." They reminisced about what it was like to grow up Jewish in Hartford during the early years of the 20th century. The interviews were taped and transcribed to create an exhibition entitled: "The Way It Was: Early 20th Century Jewish Life in Hartford." The kids learned interviewing skills and about both life in general and Jewish life in the early 20th century. The seniors were thrilled to be "on stage" and tell their stories. In return, they learned about the lives of today’s young teens.

The third project involves the Center’s two missions and constituencies. A theater project for young students to experience and compare immigration stories is now being planned. An innovative theater group will work with students to write text and music. The group of suburban and urban children will learn about the immigration stories of Jews, Hispanics, and African Americans, and will play a part in the stories themselves through performance. Curriculum materials and teacher training are a major component of the year-long project. Through these projects, and in many smaller ways, the Charter Oak Cultural Center is actively making the history and architecture of our historic building, including its strong past Jewish identity, work to foster better understanding in today’s multi-cultural city. While we know that each historic sites has its own appeal, and its special needs, we hope that some of what we have accomplished in Hartford can be instructive and inspiring elsewhere in the country and the world.

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Updated: 24-Jul-98