After tragic fire in historic synagogue: Shared space or hyper-gentrification?

Story and photos by Doug Cumming

NEW YORK — An abandoned synagogue that for 120 years housed New York’s oldest Eastern European Jewish congregation was not noticed much – until it lit up the sky last May.

The flames that pillared up from Beth Hamedrash Hagadol that Sunday evening, Mother’s Day, caught residents’ attention more than two miles away. People who knew the history of this neglected site in the Lower East Side began calling one another, like relatives when a loved one dies.


Ruins of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue

Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer who had long hoped for the building’s restoration, got such a call, but couldn’t bear to go outside and look. “I had a very good sense I didn’t want to see its demise.”

For another neighborhood preservationist, avoiding the pain took longer.  “I couldn’t go there for about two weeks after the fire,” Holly Kaye, founder of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, told a Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing July 11. “It’s just a tragedy.”

Now the question that neighbors and preservationists are asking is this: If any portion of the looming ruins can be saved, will it be used as part of a shared community space that honors the rich immigrant history of the Lower East Side? Or will it become another iconic gesture embedded in another multi-million-dollar luxury apartment building?

The cathedral-style neo-gothic brick building, whose name means “Great House of Study,” dates back to a Protestant church in the 1850s. Its first rabbi in the 1880s, Jacob Joseph, was the city’s only “chief rabbi,” a European title that didn’t last in New York beyond Rabbi Joseph’s massive funeral in 1902. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s rabbi from 1952 until his death in 2003 was Ephraim Oshrey, a noted Talmudic scholar and Holocaust survivor.


Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer, observes a pew in her home from the original 1850 building.

In her residence several blocks from the ruins at 60 Norfolk St., Sampson points out a piece of the original synagogue, a short wooden pew, that survives in her home. She flips through the pages of The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, a 1978 book she helped update for a second edition in 2013.

There is a photo of Rabbi Oshrey, a remarkable religious leader who drew many old-time as well as newly arrived Orthodox Jews to the synagogue. Sampson said he played a leading role in saving the building when much of the Seward Park area fell victim to “slum clearance” in the 1960s. Oshrey had the building “landmarked” in 1967, the early years of New York’s powerful Landmark Preservation Commission.

“Rabbi Oshrey, being no fool, did not want to lose his synagogue,” said Sampson, who is also a visiting lecturer at Cornell University. “He understood very well its history and was in a good position to know why it was important.”

The landmark protection of the building became a hindrance to finding a viable commercial future for the synagogue. In 2012, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, the son-in-law of Rabbi Oshrey, filed a hardship application with the LPC for relief from the landmark restrictions. (With no remaining congregation, ownership of the synagogue had been transferred to “Beth Hamedrash Hagadol of New York Restoration, Inc.” for $10, according to a deed dated May 13, 1969, signed by the new owner Aron Mendel. Mendel lives near Rabbi Greenbaum in a Hassidic section of Brooklyn.)


Photos of the synagogue and Rabbi Oshrey in the book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side

The LPC did not grant hardship relief in 2012.

At the July 11 LPC hearing after the fire, several speakers aired rumors or suspicions that neglect of the building since 2012 was deliberate, since its real estate value has risen by some $6 million since the fire.

Holly Kaye, who had been working for 20 years to save the synagogue, quashed those rumors. She said Rabbi Greenbaum’s request for hardship relief outraged the community, but when she talked to the rabbi about this at that time, he immediately withdrew the application and completely changed his outlook. Since then, she said, he has worked with community groups and potential development partners to save the synagogue.

In fact, Kaye said, a meeting about a preservation plan was just days away, with the Chinese-American Planning Council and other development partners, when the synagogue was ravaged by the fire. To imply that the rabbi had anything to do with the fire “goes against everything that I know,” she said.

Sampson agrees. “While the rabbi is indecisive and did not take the right steps from 2007 to before the fire to secure the building and restore it,” she said, “there’s a distinct difference between saying that and connecting it to the arson. It has absolutely nothing to do with the arson.” The building wasn’t even insured – or insurable, she added.

Rabbi Greenbaum did not respond to email or phone calls.

Whether or not the building could have been more secure or in better shape, the deterioration was so advanced, Sampson had ceased giving tours of the interior. The mold was a liability, she said. There had been other minor fires inside, and young people were frequently breaking in to party. Bernice Cincron, manager of the high-rise residential building next door, said her supervisor would call the rabbi whenever they noticed a break-in.

Police questioned three 14-year-olds suspected of being in the synagogue when the fire started, and released one of the juveniles after charging him with arson.

The LPC disappointed the applicant, who wanted permission to conduct the demolition completely free of landmark restrictions. Instead, the LPC granted the right to remove all unsafe portions in accord with engineering studies by both the LPC and the owner. The engineering studies agree that most of the walls and towers are too unstable to be saved. But once the remains are safe, the owners and development partners are to assess how these might be incorporated in a new development plan.

This gives community activists some hope. The day after the July 11 decision, the online Bowery Boogie published an upbeat, anonymous op-ed by a resident who lives across the street and watched the fire from there.

“I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, and have seen amazing culturally significant buildings transformed into parks, galleries, municipal buildings and other structures,” the resident wrote. “We as a community, if we think creatively, can do that with the space and structure that is salvageable at Beth Hamedrash.”

This is Elissa Sampson’s hope. It’s not so much a matter of how much of the physical building remains, but how it is used. One vision is something like the re-purposed synagogue at 172 Norfolk St., a Reformed German Jewish synagogue older than Beth Hamedrash Hagadol that was saved from the wrecking ball by Spanish artist Angel Orensanz. Today, that brightly painted building is a cultural center, a wedding venue for celebrities, a highlight of Lower East Side tours and rented space for a Reform Jewish shul.


Tour group views Angel Orensanz Center at 176 Norfolk St., several blocks north of the burned synagogue.

The contrasting vision that Sampson fears is hyper-gentrification, embodied by the 16-story glass Blue Tower at 105 Norfolk St., where apartments rent for as much as $18,000 a month and the top floors sell for $7 million, according to Lower East Side Tenement Museum tour guide Laureen Fredella.

“So the real stakes in the Lower East Side are that of belonging in terms of long-term residents, and fostering a sense of belonging in new-time residents,” Sampson says. “It’s across the board, in having equity in the neighborhood in ways that play fair whether it’s access to green space, public space, housing, and having diversity.”

Historically, the area was the most densely populated place on the planet and an incubator of the hope, liberty and faith of American immigrants. Now, Sampson says, it’s one of the most economically stratified neighborhoods in New York City.

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Rounding Manhattan

The tourists sitting in rows on the top deck of the docked Circle Line Manhattan waited to be entertained, and at $41 per adult ticket, $27 for children, it better be good.

“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls,” a brassy New York voice blared over the speakers, beginning the invisible tour guide’s spiel. His intro seemed a little long for not moving out of the diesel fumes while the ship sat lashed to the pier’s parking deck.

“There are some very cool things to see,” the voice said. He promised a lot of history and claimed this tour was different from all the other sightseeing tours. When you’re well out from the city looking back, he said, something very special happens.

Engines kicked in under the steel deck, and presently, the voyage was out on the windy Hudson River. The promised magic took hold.

Women began to look like models in a studio when a fan blows their long hair and they gaze off into a gel light. The sinking sun behind a cloud over the New Jersey side cast down cathedral light beams. The boat curved toward the south over what the tour guide called a “sacred space,” where Captain “Sully” Sullenberger had belly flopped an engine-less jet airliner in 2009 without losing a single passenger. The geese that clogged the engines didn’t fare so well.

The guide could be found in the covered foredeck, an actor named Malachy Murray who said he had played Dracula on Broadway. A mic in one hand, that arm covered in tattoos, he invoked the old days of the world’s greatest shipping port, of the Hamilton-Burr duel in those woods on the New Jersey side, and of the immigrant’s dream back when Ellis Island took in the tempest tossed and wretched refuse. Thick blond hair spilling over his shoulders, he is Irish-American, lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and when asked about his classic New York accent, quipped, “I worked hard on it for 52 years.”

The two-hour tour circled around the great island of file-cabinet skyscrapers, chugged under the cable-knit East River bridges to Roosevelt Island, and muscled out to a vantage point between the Statue of Liberty and dense-packed lower Manhattan as both lit up. The glow brought a hundred cellphone cameras aloft, offering a perfect contrast to the blue-gray waters below and clouds above the color of a large bruise.

“Is that great, or is that awesome?” Deanna Ezzell of Kansas City, Mo., said to her husband Jason, pointing at the Statue of Liberty they had been inside the day before.

A light rain began falling and the festive mood got even higher when the crowd huddled close together under the shelter behind the foredeck. Most of the wet seats in the open were abandoned. But a young woman out there with a few others laughed under her tightly held umbrella, rib-bent upward in the wind like a flower.

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Tweeting BLM event in Brooklyn

Jul 13

Flatbush and Nostrand, Brooklyn

Rally and parade by BLM chapter, People’s Power Assembly. FTP shouted. C P R on cop cars.

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“Kid Pro Quo” – headline in NY Daily News

A class exercise, after viewing White House news conference of July 11.

Photos and story by Doug CummingCamera crew at Trump Tower

President Trump, who had repeatedly dismissed “the Russia thing” as a hoax and sour grapes, faced dramatic evidence to the contrary yesterday.

His son Donald Trump Jr., under the growing heat of media disclosures of a secret meeting with a Russian lawyer, abruptly released a series of emails showing he met last year with a woman he believed represented a Kremlin effort to help elect his father.

The admission threw such a glaring new light on possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the White House held a press briefing within hours. But deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders kept a tight rein on the event, which was restricted to audio-only and embargoed until it was over.

She began with boiler-plate complaints about other political issues, then opened the floor to questions, which were almost all about the shattering implications of Donald Jr.’s emails. Sanders rhythmically swatted down the questions with a pre-fab position: Only Don Jr. and outside counsel could answer those questions.

Trump window

Display window in Trump Tower

Asked if she was sticking with her statement from the day before that no member of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, Sanders said yes she was.

She did not dispute the scenario that emerged from the emails – that Don Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in June 2016 met with a woman they believed to be a Russian government representative with damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

And how is that not collusion, a reporter asked. “Once again,” she said, “I know you guys are going to get tired of it today — and not to sound like a broken record — but on all questions related to this matter, I would refer you to Don Jr.’s counsel and outside counsel.”

For 13 months, Trump and his circle have been dismissing concerns that his campaign was involved in Russia’s hacking of emails. Trump even disputes that the Russian government was responsible for such meddling, in the face of his own administration’s intelligence agencies saying there was no doubt about it. The entire matter is under investigation by independent counsel Robert Mueller.

Sanders read a brief statement from President Trump, who said, “My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.”

She said she did not know when the president last spoke with his son.


Tourists rising the escalators at Trump Tower

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A Letter to Our Congressman

Dear Congressman Goodlatte:

Thank you for your email of May 22 responding to our concerns about the American Health Care Act that you support.

Our concerns can be divided into two classes: One, our moral commitment to what is best for the common good and two, our self-interest in what is best for our daughter Sarah. For now, we’ll leave the moral concerns to the good debate about the AHCA that is playing out in various journals and editorial pages. Our comments here are entirely selfish, regarding Sarah.

As I have shared with your Staunton office and in online comments to the White House, Sarah is a self-disciplined, articulate, responsible 26-year-old walking “pre-existing condition.” With bone-cancer presenting in her upper right arm at 15, she has had limb-sparing surgery, lung surgery for metastasis, a successful bone-marrow transplant, and most recently, brain surgery on a slow-growing tumor that causes minor seizures and raises questions about future treatment.

Having aged out of our good insurance coverage through Washington and Lee University (where we, her parents, are both on the faculty), Sarah is getting an extension of the same coverage under COBRA for just over $600 a month. But that will run out by mid-2018. Then she will have to seek coverage from the marketplace exchanges. At that point, the question is which system would be better for her, the ACA or the AHCA. We know the current system would likely present higher premiums and limited choices for her, particularly if Congress doesn’t fix some of the obvious flaws with the law (Obamacare), which incorporates huge political compromises with the big insurance companies. (As you know, the law also reflects GOP demands, even though those compromises didn’t win any votes.) She would need the highest-level of coverage.

You claim that the ACHA would give her the same protections she has under the ACA. At least I think that’s what you mean: “The AHCA would only allow insurance companies to consider health status when assessing premiums if that person has not maintained continuous coverage.”

Sarah graduated with honors from Sewanee. Her parents have graduate degrees. Although we have experienced the absurdity of the theory that there’s such a thing as “consumer-driven health care choices” when dealing with health insurance companies, the three of us can probably guard against discontinuous coverage in Sarah’s case. But will coverage be affordable for her?

The CBO report says it might not: “Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy … would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all.”

What does this mean? David Nather, the health care editor at Axios, explained it this way on May 25: “In the states that get waivers from the ACA’s pricing and benefit rules, people with pre-existing conditions could be priced out of the market. Those states would cover about one sixth of the population.”

I respect that you “firmly believe” in your bill. However, when that belief is so firm that you rush to vote without allowing any committee hearings, without listening to the objections of the associations of doctors, hospitals, nurses and AARP (virtually all groups involved except the insurance companies), and without hearing from the Congressional Budget Office, I wonder if reason and the public good have been squelched.

Please think of Sarah and her parents, your constituents in Virginia’s beautiful 6th District.


Douglas and Elizabeth Cumming

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Lee at Tivoli Circle

“So this monument, lifted far above our daily strife of narrow interests and often narrower passions and misunderstandings, becomes a monument to more than its one great and rightly loved original. It symbolizes our whole South’s better self; the finer part which the world not always sees; unaggressive, but brave, calm, thoughtful, broad-minded, dispassionate, sincere, and, in the din of boisterous error round about it, all too mute.”
N_LeeCircle_LibraryShriners_infrogmation_ed3from George Washington Cable, “The Silent South,” 1884

The distinction of New Orleans is in its cemeteries, from miniature cathedrals “to  a small artificial mountain containing the mausoleum of the Army of the Tennessee, General Albert Sidney Johnston atop, astride his horse and still in command. The great Texas general gazes at Robert E. Lee himself atop his column across town. It is easy to imagine a slightly bemused expression on the faces of these stern Anglo-Saxon commanders as they contemplate between them this their greatest city and yet surely the one place in the South most foreign to them.”
— Walker Percy, “The City of the Dead,” 1984

“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”

— New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, 2017

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Endnotes in Strange Times

The research papers came in on the All-Academic website. I sent them out to reviewers. Then by May 1, the reviews came in, and we’re off to the races.

What an amazing system! And what a privilege for me.

AEJMC Chicago

I get to see the work of my fellow media history scholars, papers with strata of endnotes labored out of solitary time in Presidential libraries or oral-history interviews or after-hours in your campus offices. Then I get to see the Likert scores and thoughtful comments of all those volunteer reviewers.

At the upcoming conference in Chicago and in the next Clio, I’ll give the final statistics on papers submitted and accepted. As the song says, “Won’t you please come to Chicago for the help that we can bring.” (We can change the world?)

For now, I’d like to reflect a bit on what this system of paper-submission and blind review means today, especially when we’re doing history.

These are strange times. As a New Year cartoon in my local newspaper had it, pigs representing 2016 were flying with these labels: Bob Dylan wins the Nobel for Literature, Chicago Cubs win the World Series, and Trump is elected President.  The psychic atmosphere is captured well in the title of a new book by “On the Media” co-host Brooke Gladstone, “The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time.”

In the early days of the Internet, there was a hopeful anticipation of vast quantities of digitized “information” and democratized technology. But this has been darkened considerably by doubts and downsides. Such doubts were always hanging around. (I was taken by critiques of technology from Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul way back in my post-adolescent Romantic Age.)

President Clinton in his 1996 nomination speech talked about “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century,” and while this covered a standard policy menu, the idea became associated with Vice President Gore’s call for an Internet Superhighway. Neil Postman, the wise media ecologist at New York University at the time, responded with a 1999 book he titled “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future.”

VoltairePostman, who died in 2003, noted a curious fact: the Age of Enlightenment had no use for the word “information.” He found it missing from the indexes of every single book he had read on 18th century thought, nearly 100 works in all. (Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the frequency of the word “information” rising like a steep mountain since 1940, especially since the ‘60s, becoming three or four times more common in 2000 than “knowledge” or “reality,” which had enjoyed stable use in print since 1800.)

Postman’s explanation is that the Age of Reason understood that isolated facts – mere “information” – had absolutely no value unless contributing to something larger. That something larger was “knowledge,” the obsession of philosophes like Voltaire with his “History of the World,” or polymaths like Samuel Johnson with his “Dictionary.” What we call critical thinking they valued as skepticism, but such lucidity always had a higher purpose, and in America, it had the pragmatic result of our founding documents. Postman argues that mere information, no matter how vast and speedy, needs context and ultimately, a sustaining narrative.

We don’t study history to learn from the mistakes of the past. History isn’t a bunch of lessons for our benefit, never mind Santayana’s oft- repeated quote. (My version: Those who remember that quote are condemned to repeat it — endlessly.) I have come to believe that the best use of history is to know where we/I stand in the narrative – really, how we/I fit into any number of shared narratives. Whether regional, media, gender, national, or global history, Postman says we need narratives that we can believe in and that are of good use. If the story has religious overtones, so be it. “The purpose of a narrative is to give meaning to the world, not to describe it scientifically.”[1]

Santayana’s quote needs context as well. What he wrote in “The Life of Reason,” before condemning those who cannot remember history, is that progress is built on what is retained from the past, like a scene in a good story. “When change is absolute,” he wrote, “there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.”

I have just spent some of a sabbatical-semester reading about the 18th century Enlightenment. This Eurocentric outburst seems to be a good source of the narrative we need today. It is our source for checks and balances (from Montesquieu’s analogy with the solar system in “The Spirit of the Law”), free trade (Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”), a free press, evidence-based science, representative democracy and all that.

Our division’s accepted papers explore “new knowledge” ranging from an analysis of how “fake news” fits into the history of hoaxes to an argument that a co-founder of Freedom’s Journal embraced the controversial crusade against the American Colonization Society. The quiet pursuit of seemingly obscure or theoretical corners of media history reminds me of the camera shots at the beginning of Pare Lorenz’s documentary The River, raindrops and creek heads delicately building into the tributaries that will become the Mississippi.

It may be a stretch in this post-modern time, but I like to think of these research papers and their blind reviews in the context of the Enlightenment narrative, a vast project of skepticism and enlarged understanding. It joins us to what was said about the great French historian Marc Bloch, who was executed by the Nazis in an open field in France near the end of World War II: “He was capable of infinite attention to detail, but he never forgot that the details had meaning only in the larger framework of the history of human society.”[2]

[1] Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (New York: Knopf, 1999), 109-10.

[2] Joseph R. Strayer, “Introduction,” The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Knopf, 1953), x.

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