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Beyond The Village and Back: Temple Emanu-El, Reform Movement Builder and Shaker

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of the Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

Today we are going to take a look at Temple Emanu-El located at 65th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.  It is New York’s largest synagogue, and by reputation is the largest Reform synagogue in the world. But this very uptown institution actually has some very downtown roots, which may surprise you.

The Landmarked Romanesque Revival Temple Emanu-El

Designed by Robert D. Kohn on the former site of the Mrs. William B. Astor House, this Romanesque Revival building overlooks Central Park and features an arch with symbols representing the twelve tribes of Israel, flanked by two 1920s lions resting on semi-engaged columns. The building was built to be the largest Reform Jewish synagogue in the world, and it is undeniably incredibly grand. Over the entrances’ three doorways are four columned stained glass windows, topped by a beautiful flower of stained glass with a Jewish Star at its center. Walking into the synagogue, through the doors which feature iconography of the Twelve Tribes – named for the Biblical patriarch Jacob and his eleven brothers – visitors are met by soaring, intricate ceilings, stone arches lining the walls and lush light cast by the stained glass windows at the entrance and along the sides of the sanctuary, which seats 2,500.

Interior of current Temple Emanu-El, photo by Mike Appel

The building is home to a chapel, offices, a school, and a museum, in addition to its main sanctuary. And rows of pews evoke the memory of the community’s first pews at 112 East 10th Street, at a time when they were a journeying community of American German Jewish immigrants, whose history is tied to the East Village, and the strange, detached steepled sitting in front of an NYU dorm.

I wanted to look closer at Emanu-El after reading our Executive Director Andrew Berman’s recent article “From house of worship to NYU dorm: The story of the East Village’s ‘ghost church.’ “The disembodied church steeple sitting in front of a 26-story NYU dorm on East 12th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues makes for one of the more head-scratching sights in New York.” I couldn’t agree more. Andrew continues: 

The church steeple sitting on East 12th Street was part of the 12th Street Baptist Church, built on this site in 1847… by 1854 the Baptist Church had ceded the structure to a new occupant, Temple Emanu-El, a small Jewish congregation that previously met on the second floor of a building at Grand and Clinton Streets. Emanu-El was the first Reform Jewish congregation in New York City, and among the many reforms first implemented at the 12th Street building was allowing men and women to sit together in the pews for the first time. From these humble beginnings Temple Emanu-El moved to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in 1868, and in 1927 to their current location at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street – a massive, Romanesque Revival structure which is often referred to as the largest reform synagogue in the world, and by some as the largest synagogue in the world.

The site of Temple Emanu-El’s early home in 1975, via MCNY (L); Today, via Mike Licht/Flickr ®

Well, I was a Jewish History major, but I didn’t know that Temple Emanu-El was the city’s first Reform synagogue. I did know about the early years of the Reform movement, which rose out of Jewish emancipation and acculturation in Central Europe during the late 18th Century, and how it innovated Jewish religious practices like egalitarian seating. Temple Emanu-El was a trailblazing community of the Reform movement, also adding German hymns to its prayer book, and switching from a one-year cycle of reading Torah – which is read in weekly chapters throughout the year – to the triennial cycle of reading. Many of these practices are familiar to progressive branches of Judaism today, but they were considered quite radical in the mid-1800s when Emanu-El was adopting them. “Emanu-El” means “God is with us;” my guess is that they chose this name to lend legitimacy to their newfangled practices, though the synagogue doesn’t indicate where its name came from officially.

Jewish immigrants arriving in America, from Temple Emanu-El’s website

Temple Emanu-El began on April 6, 1845 in much the same way many synagogues have formed through the years – a collection of 33 people, without a Rabbi, meeting in a rented space with shared ideals and spiritual practices. Their rented space was on Grand Street and Clinton Streets in the Lower East Side. They bought their first building, formerly a Methodist church, at 56 Chrystie Street, which was their home from 1848 through 1854. The building which is now just a facade at 112 East 10th Street was their third home, from 1854 until 1866. Its pews were the first synagogue’s egalitarian seating. It was in this building, too, where Emau-El introduced instrumental music into religious services, something which had never been done before, filling the halls with a new kind of liturgical prayer experience. In 1866, Emanu-El moved out, passing the building to St. Ann’s Catholic Church.  The Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which owned the building, shuttered St. Ann’s Church in 2004, and sold the site to the Hudson Companies for construction of an NYU dorm.

An image of the grand Temple Emanu-El on 43rd Street, Harper’s Magazine

After their first real capital campaign, Emanu-El built their fourth home, where they would spend 50 years, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 43rd Street. Architects Leopold Eidlitz and Henry Fernbach (apparently the first Jewish architect in the country and a recent immigrant) designed the building which, also in keeping with Reform movement trends, was not identifiably a synagogue, but borrowed elements from a variety of traditions to indicate that the building was religious, hallowed, without indicating that it was Jewish. The New York Times wrote, “The style of the building may be named as Moorish; but like most modern structures, whether in good taste or not, it will exhibit the features of several styles of architecture.” This included Gothic and Greek Revival elements, as well as Moorish details.

Image of Temple Emanu-El when it stood tall over its corner of 43rd Street

50 years in, Emanu-El’s standout building was dwarfed with the rise of so many commercial buildings in midtown. The decision was made to move farther uptown again. In January 1926, the 43rd Street building was sold to the developer Benjamin Winter, Sr. for $6,500,000, who then sold it to Joseph Durst in December 1926 for $7,000,000. In 1927, Durst demolished the building to make room for commercial development. Emanu-El merged with another synagogue, Congregation Beth-El, and together used Beth-El’s building at 76th Street and 5th Avenue, while their current location was being built at 65th Street and Fifth Avenue. 

The “new” Temple Emanu-El, on 65th Street and 5th Avenue, in a rendering from 1945

You can take a tour of this beautiful, landmarked building, in a video made by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, highlighting the building’s history and architecture.  You can also take a tour of the building in person; the Sanctuary is open to the public and tours are available Sunday through Friday through the synagogue’s office.

Details of the roof and stained glass in the landmarked Emanu-El Temple. Photo care of the Corning Museum of Glass

6 Sqft 
NYC Architecture
Temple Emanu-El’s Timeline
Daytonian in Manhattan

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