Eldridge Street Synagogue's history intertwined with immigration

It is not what you'd expect to find in the middle of Chinatown but the Eldridge Street Synagogue has been a fixture on the Lower East Side for more than a century. Built in 1886, the Jewish temple's history is just as incredible as its architecture.

"You close your eyes and you can hear the voices of all the ancestors, their prayers and the speech and all the wants and the hopes of every immigrant who passed through here," said Shoshana Bookson, secretary-treasurer.

Bookson's family has worshiped at the Eldrige Street Synagogue for five generations. She said the landmark is more than just a piece of Jewish history; it is a piece of American history. Back in the 1880s, the Lower East Side was a portal for immigration. Most Jews who came through were Eastern European, also known as Ashkenazi Jews.

"It was the Eastern European Jewry, for the most part, who were escaping the terrors and the problems of czarist Russia where there was no religious freedom at all," Bookson said. "And the religious observance was primarily practiced privately and in secret."

That all changed when arriving in America. The concept of practicing religion freely was hard to believe.

"It was unbelievable for these relatively new immigrants who became successful, who had businesses here and yet, to their astonishment, could still remain observant Jews without any interference from the government," Bookson said.

And so, as a sign of gratitude, they erected Congregation Kahla Doth Bnei Jesherin. Today it is called the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Attendance at the time was so strong that congregants would overflow onto the streets during high holidays, Bookson said. Men and women sat separate. Today they do the same.

"These are the original wooden pews that were used in the women's section that have been restored, they're in a little better condition than a lot of the pews that were downstairs in the men's section because those got much more use," Bookson said.

As with any old building, upkeep is required. In the 1970s, the Eldridge Street Project formed to begin a stabilization and restoration of the sanctuary space.

"They were able to see past the dust and see what could one day become a center of current immigration, celebration and education as well as a restored gem of architectural history," said Chelsea Dowell, the director of marketing and audience outreach.

"A small part of a wall here in the women's balcony which was left un-refurbished in the restoration that was conducted for the rest of the entire sanctuary and women's balcony just to show what condition this was in before we undertook the restoration," Bookson said.

It took 20 years and $20 million, but today the synagogue also operates as a museum.

"So this is the museum's exhibition space and this is a place where we are able to tell a little bit more of the building's history, show some of the artifacts from the building's history, as well as the immigrant story of the Lower East Side," Dowell said.

Tours are offered Sunday through Friday.

Orthodox Jews come for Sabbath services on Saturday.

No matter what day you choose to attend, inside these synagogue walls the same resounding message is always received, Bookson said.

"We are all immigrants," she said. "We are all someone who came here from some other place at some other time and that's an important point that often gets lost in today's dialogue."