By Francine Klagsbrun
October 20, 1994
The Jewish Week
The story of the old building our new congregation has just occupied has a made-in-Hollywood feel about it. But it's all true, which makes it not just a good story, but a piece of New York Jewish history.
Actually, the congregation itself is not so new anymore. A small group of us founded it almost six years ago, the first Conservative congregation on Manhattan's Upper East Side in a hundred years. We wanted something different -- a "shul," not a "temple," and a rabbi who functioned more as a teacher than a preacher. We called it Congregation Or Zarua, meaning "Light Is Sown" (from the words in Psalm 97, "Light is sown for the righteous"), and built it around the ideals of community study, services led by congregants rather than a cantor or choir, and egalitarianism in all matters.
We nervously rented space at the 92nd Street Y for Sabbath and holiday services, at first counting heads to ensure a minyan, later counting the "house" to measure our growth from week to week. When we reached a membership of almost 200 families (we're now at 250) and standing room only at some of our services, we knew it was time to seek a home of our own.
The place we settled on after scouring the city for more than two years was a small, nondescript church belonging to a Protestant sect called the Waldensians. Some of us had noticed their building looking seedy and their numbers at Sunday-morning services dwindling drastically.
With a little chutzpah and a lot of hope, we asked if they might consider selling. Hesitant at first (this was their only presence in New York City), after yearlong negotiations they finally agreed, and we acquired their church for our synagogue last April.
What made us choose this building? The location was right (82nd Street near Lexington Avenue), and the size and price both seemed manageable.
If some congregants felt a little funny about moving into a church, others predicted that with its crosses and figure of Jesus removed, with plaster and paint, we could make this building our own, unconnected to its past.
What we didn't know was how connected its past was to us.
God, as they say, works in mysterious ways, for when we began a serious examination of the building we discovered, leaning against a back wall, a memorial plaque written in Hebrew and English. The name on it was German Kahn and the date of his death, the first day of Sukkot, 1927. Where did it come from, and what did it mean?
Now we undertook a more detailed investigation into the building's history. What we learned was this: In 1883, a couple named Esther and Hyman Schnitzer Jr. gave this property to Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun to build on. Our church, then, had begun as a synagogue. And not just any synagogue, it seems, but the now prominent Orthodox congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, parent to the Ramaz School.
We have no evidence of what the synagogue was like in those days, or even if it was Orthodox then. We can only say that its founders were German Jews, who, as they became more prosperous, moved on to grander quarters, selling their property in 1904 to another congregation, B'nai Paiser. Eventually this synagogue sold to another and that to another until, in 1951, a group called the Modern Synagogue Inc. sold its building to the Waldensian Church.
But the story doesn't end there.
The Waldensians, we found, are descendants of a sect formed in France in the 12th century, dedicated to the study of Scriptures and firm believers in the right of women to preach. Their principles -- uncannily in harmony with our own -- got them into trouble with the Catholic Church, which persecuted them for years. Their members took to the Italian Alps for safety, over the centuries building churches in the foothills of the mountains. During World War II, Waldensians joined the Italian resistance, and some among them helped Italian Jews escape the trains set up to transport them to Hitler's death camps.
And the denouement. The reason the Modern Synagogue allowed itself to sell to a church was that one of its members recognized one of the Waldensians as a man who had hidden and rescued Jews during the war.
So there it is. Circles within circles. A synagogue that became a church that has become a synagogue again.
We held our first service in our new building on the Sabbath of Sukkot. The carpets weren't all down, the lights not fully in place, our renovation only in its earliest phases.
But as we sang the Hallel, the psalms of praise chanted on festivals, our voices rose to the ceiling and bounced off, echoing the emotion and joy we all felt.
And in the midst of our echoes I thought I could hear others -- of the early Jews who built this building and worshiped in it for two decades, of later congregants who, all told, prayed here for more than 40 years, of German Kahn, whose Yahrzeit plaque remained miraculously intact, even of the Waldensians, who had sat in these same pews, and who felt proud, they told us, to have held the building in safekeeping for us to turn into a synagogue again.
We've reclaimed the building now, and its story is part of our congregation's history. It's also part of Jewish history in New York.
Talk about continuity!