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The Roof Falls In And The Bottom Falls Out
Jonathan Mark
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
January 27, 2006

Lower East Side shul in crisis after years of hanging on.
On the first night of Sukkot, in Rebbetzin Chana Spiegel’s sukkah behind the apartments on Grand Street, Seymour Schlatner motioned with his Marlboro to Ira Keller and Basha, a Polish woman, that they take a cigarette break.

“We sat on a park bench for three hours just talking,” said Schlatner. “Anyway, Basha and I talked, Ira kept his mouth shut for three hours, which if you know Ira,” Schlatner joked. The normally talkative Keller smiled, puffing Parliaments and huddling in the cold next to Schlatner on Rivington Street as they watched the fire engines pull up in front of their shul.

“After 20 years of saying I’d never get married again, my lovely wife, Basha and I got married Oct. 30 in this shul,” said Schlatner. “It was just magical. I don’t know how they transformed the place.” He pointed with his cigarette at the First Roumanian-American Congregation across Rivington, yellow police tape sealing its doors as firemen entered to examine the collapsed roof that was first erected in 1885 during the Garfield administration.

“We were probably the last affair in the shul,” Schlatner figured.

This Yom Kippur the roof was so porous, said Schlatner, “we davened with water buckets” in the basement, the only room in the shul that was borderline functional for prayer, or a modest wedding.

The main sanctuary, under the collapsed roof, has been a ghostly cave for more than 20 years. One of the largest synagogue spaces in New York, with more than 1,700 seats that seemed just the right size in the legendary days of Lower East Side, it has long been too large to be heated and too cold for the few congregants.

Back in 1995, after I stopped in for a random Mincha, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Spiegel, son of the Ostrover-Kalishner rebbe and the congregation’s tall and dignified leader, insisted I follow him into the empty arena, once known as the “cantor’s Carnegie Hall,” for its spectacular acoustics and vast crowds that once attracted cantorial legendsYossele Rosenblatt, Moishe Oysher, Richard Tucker and Jan Pierce to lead services here. Legend has it, Red Buttons once came back to the shul and showed where he stood in a Kol Nidre night choir led by Moshe Koussevitzky.

By the 1990s, the pews were askew, there was mold on the prayer books and water stains on the floor. That day Rabbi Spiegel pointed out the marble plaques on the wall immortalizing the major philanthropists who donated $5 and $10 to the eradication of the mortgage, big money back in 1902 when the congregation moved into the building, previously a Methodist church. He told me that in 1985, “we spent $35,000” just to remodel the basement prayer hall.

Three years ago, Rabbi Spiegel dropped dead in the shul of a massive heart attack and for one of the last times the big room had a crowd.

This week, outside 89 Rivington St., on the shul’s red brick, an old sign still advertised High Holy Day services with the late Rabbi Spiegel.

“Without my father there’d be no shul,” explained Rabbi Shmuel Spiegel, who now leads the congregation. The young rabbi, with bushy beard and an upturned brim on his black hat, stood on the sidewalk in the January cold explaining to anyone who asked that the shul will rebuild.

He was in Brooklyn when he got a call on his cell phone Sunday afternoon reporting a great crash of metal and timber when the beams supporting the roof gave way. The building is not an official landmark and might have to be demolished, according to some familiar with the damage.

While it may not be a landmark, the shul is certainly a throwback in this Lower East Side neighborhood poised between the groceries selling votive candles for saints, Spanish tailor shops, Mexican restaurants, tattoo parlors, sex paraphernalia shops, bodegas and sellers of electric guitars. Right next to the Roumanian-American Congregation is the American Bangladesh halal grocery. Down the block, there are signs of gentrification, with a chic eatery selling parsley-crusted venison for a stiff price.

The shul has friends in this eclectic neighborhood. Well-wishers came by from the Lower East Side Conservancy, and a few Asian-Americans came as well. Serge, an Israeli real estate man, clean-shaven and open-collared, walked up to the rabbi and whispered he’d come through with money, the way he did when the boiler broke. Linda Schapiro, from Schapiro Kosher Winery, walked over to the rabbi and promised she’d drop off wine for kiddush at his mother Chana’s apartment.

Rebbetzin Chana’s apartment on Grand Street had become the shul’s home in exile, with services in her living room and refuge for a dozen Torahs, many in need of repair long before they were rescued Monday morning from the massive ark in the roofless shul, the ark imported from the congregation’s origins in Romania.

Rabbi Spiegel, shortly before leading Mincha in the street outside the shul’s Romanesque archway, said, “We have insurance. We pay our premiums. We made an insurance claim in September when we had a lot of rain. They denied our claim, saying there was nothing that wrong with the building. I hired an engineer who said, ‘Rabbi, you can’t pray here until you fix up.’ That’s why no one was injured, the shul was closed.”

Ira Keller, 38, ground his cigarette into the sidewalk: “My grandfather, when he came from Romania in the 1950s, used to daven here. It’s been 100 percent depressing watching shul get smaller,” said Keller. “We get 50 people on a normal Shabbos. Friday night is harder but we always get it. On Shabbos we’d always have hot cholent. We still do.”

He looked at the shul’s steps: “As kids during Yizkor we’d socialize on those front steps.”

Robin Cooper, whose father had a grocery directly across the street, stared at the empty shul. She remembered her brother’s bar mitzvah in the early 1960s, the hundreds of children in the hallways, her father going at night to the shul’s board meetings and a long-ago rabbi who “spoke like a king.”

But sell? “Never will happen,” said Keller. “Never will happen. The rabbi always said this shul will never be sold. Its our duty to keep it up and keep it going.”

Schlatner the bridegroom said, “Definitely, the shul’ll be fixed.”

“With what money?” asked Max, an old Polish Jew with a thick accent. “We have seven, eight, nine people.”

“The shul will never close,” insisted Schlatner.

Moishe Brenner, another old Polish congregant, told Schlatner, “I’m a straight guy and I’ll tell you straight. The shul will be sold. We’ll build a new shul. Come back in two years, no more shul.”