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A Tour of Jewish Historic Sites South of Union Square

The area of Greenwich Village and the East Village south of Union Square, for which Village Preservation has been advocating landmark protections, is the center of an amazing and dynamic collection of histories. This neighborhood was a critical touchstone in the African American, LGBTQ, and women’s civil rights movements; it was home to the revolutionary “New York School” of artists; and it was a major hub of publishing, commerce, fashion, music, labor organizing, bookselling, and so much else. Amidst these historic trends, a number of buildings south of Union Square also served as important landmarks in the city’s Jewish history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, the first Reform Jewish congregation in New York City was organized; eminent Jewish architects constructed still-extant buildings; a high-ranking Jewish American in the federal government founded a life-saving committee; a progressive organization with strong Jewish roots fought for racial equality, interracial solidarity, industrial unions, and social security programs; and a local liberal Jewish congregation was developed.

120 East 12th Street

120 East 12th Street, 2011.

The church steeple sitting in front of NYU’s Founder’s Hall dormitory at 120 East 12th Street was built in 1847 as part of the 12th Street Baptist Church. With the rapidly shifting currents of immigration sweeping through the Lower East Side in the mid-19th century, 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. Among the many reforms first implemented at the 12th Street building was the allowance of men and women to sit together in the pews for the first time.

St. Ann’s, 2005 (now demolished).

From these humble beginnings, Temple Emanu-El moved to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in 1868, and in 1927 to its 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.

After Emanu-El left the building, it was taken over by St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church, which remained until 2005 when NYU bought the building. This made it one of the very few structures in New York City to serve what had been the city’s three major faiths – Protestantism, Judaism, and Catholicism. When St. Ann’s took over the site in 1870 they demolished all of the 1847 church except the steeple, replacing the nave with a spectacular new structure designed by architect Napoleon LeBrun (see interior images here). While that portion of the church was demolished in 2005 to make way for the NYU dorm, the steeple has been, since 1870, all that remains of the former Temple Emanu-El and the 12th Street Baptist Church.

18 East 14th Street

18 East 14th Street, 2012.

This loft building was designed in 1892 by the firm of Brunner & Tryon. Arnold Brunner was one of America’s earliest and most prominent Jewish architects, who also designed the landmarked Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue on the Upper West Side (the oldest Jewish congregation in North America) and the Asser Levy Public Baths on East 23rd Street. He also co-founded the Architectural League of New York.

72 Fifth Avenue

72 Fifth Avenue, 2012.

In 1893, Marx and Moses Ottinger, and Isidore and Max Korn, built the new headquarters and a store for the Appleton & Company publishers at 72 Fifth Avenue. Moses Ottinger’s son, Albert Ottinger, would become the first Jewish major party candidate for Governor of New York in 1928, losing by less than 1% of the vote to Franklin Roosevelt.

70 Fifth Avenue

70 Fifth Avenue, 2012.

The American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (later Near East Relief, now the Near East Foundation) was located at 70 Fifth Avenue in the early twentieth century. The organization, founded in 1915, was developed by Henry Morgenthau, Sr. and his colleagues in an effort to confront the unfolding atrocities in the Ottoman Empire. During and after World War I, millions of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and members of other ethnic and religious minorities throughout this region were displaced or killed in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide. Morgenthau’s Committee adopted the battle cry “remember the starving Armenians,” and proceeded to raise millions of dollars to support those who were targeted.

Morgenthau, who was one of the highest ranking Jewish Americans in the federal government, clearly drew comparisons between the treatment of Jews in Europe and of Armenians and other minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Of the unfolding Armenian Genocide he said:

“I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915…Perhaps the one event in history that most resembles the Armenian deportations was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. According to Prescott 160,000 were uprooted from their homes and scattered broadcast over Africa and Europe. Yet all these previous persecutions seem almost trivial when we compare them with the sufferings of the Armenians, in which at least 600,000 people were destroyed and perhaps as many as 1,000,000.”

Campaign poster for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (now the Near East Foundation), 1918. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Morgenthau was one of the first to call out the actions of the Ottomans as an attempt at the systematic elimination of a group of people under the guise of “relocation” or removal. The marches of Armenians from their homes “represented a new method of massacre,” Morgenthau said — a “campaign of race extermination”: “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”

Morgenthau faced surprised resistance to his pleas for sparing the Armenians, based in part upon his being a Jew. Ottoman Interior Minister Talaat Pasha asked him: “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew; these people are Christians… Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” to which Morgenthau replied: “I am not here as a Jew, but as American ambassador. My country contains something like 97 million Christians and something less than three million Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97% Christian. But after all, that is not the point. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion, but merely as a human being…Our people will never forget these massacres.”

In fact, in spite of his protestations of representing the broader interests of the United States in his entreaties, the U.S. government, eager to show neutrality in the war, showed little interest in the issue, prompting Morgenthau to resign his post and pursue the cause of saving the Armenians and other minorities in the Ottoman Empire through founding the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. And in fact, the Armenian genocide which Morgenthau worked so hard to bring to light and stop would of course not long after serve as inspiration for Hitler’s genocidal plans against the Jews and others. In 1939 as Hitler prepared to invade Poland, he assured his military commanders that they’d get away with it, saying “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Henry Morgenthau, Sr., c. 1913. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Morgenthau also often served as a point of connection between the U.S. government and the concerns of Jewish Americans, including on the issue of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Like many Jews before World War II and the Holocaust, Morgenthau was not a supporter of the Zionist cause. Still, he facilitated conversations about these and other international issues of concern to Jewish Americans.

The Near East Relief is credited with saving over a million lives, including 130,000 orphans. The Near East Relief Digital Museum commemorates America’s historic response to the Armenian Genocide by preserving, reconstructing, and sharing the rich history of the relief effort. This history is also showcased in the documentary film They Shall Not Perish.

80 Fifth Avenue

80 Fifth Avenue, 2020.

The International Workers Order (IWO), which originated within the Jewish Workmen’s Circle, was located at 80 Fifth Avenue for its entire lifetime, from 1930 until 1954. This progressive mutual-benefit fraternal organization was a pioneering force in the U.S. labor movement. For a quarter of a century, the IWO fought relentlessly for racial equality, interracial solidarity, industrial unions, and social security programs that would protect working-class people.

Over the course of its lifetime, the IWO offered a vast array of resources to its members: low-cost health and life insurance, medical and dental clinics, foreign-language newspapers, cultural and educational activities, cemeteries, a summer camp, and so much more. The IWO’s leaders operated under the principle that there would be “No Jim Crow in the IWO,” and at its height, the consortium included 188,000 members from many political, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. The IWO supported fifteen language federations, and its largest was the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order.

International Workers Order Emblem, 1930. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Congressman Vito Marcantonio of East Harlem served as the IWO’s vice president and the leader of its Garibaldi Society. A protégé of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Marcantonio acted as a critical link between the IWO and the federal government. He introduced legislation drafted by the IWO to implement workplace-safety laws and universal health care, and to bar discrimination against Jewish, Italian, and Black individuals in war work. Within the IWO, Marcantonio supported civil rights campaigns such as the federal anti-lynching bill, the permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, the integration of the armed forces, the elimination of Jim Crow segregation in public facilities, and the protection of Black voting rights. The IWO’s Jewish People’s Fraternal Order also fought forcefully for the integration of the Army base recreational facilities.

33 East 12th Street

33 East 12th Street, 2020.

On June 3, 1948, thirty people gathered at the now-demolished Brevoort Hotel on Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue to discuss the formation of a liberal Jewish congregation for Greenwich Village and the lower West Side neighborhoods. Together they incorporated The Village Temple, Congregation B’nai Israel on November 5, 1948. After growing to 300 members by 1949, the congregation started to use the sanctuary of Village Presbyterian Church at 143 West 13th Street. Then, on Saturday, September 14, 1957, the Village Temple opened its doors at 33 East 12th Street. This building had been provided to the congregation by members Lena and Samuel Kilberg, who previously operated a metal shop here.

Protect the Area South of Union Square

This is just a small selection of many remarkable buildings in the neighborhood South of Union Square that recall the area’s expansive history. Given the increased pressure on the neighborhood exacerbated by the construction of the 14th Street Tech Hub, the time is now for the city to act to protect these buildings and their surroundings.

Urge the city to protect this vital history and neighborhood NOW – click here.

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