Bialystoker Synagogue & Congregation Beth Hachasidim De Polen

Bialystoker Synagogue is at 7-11 Bialystoker Place which use to be known as Willet Street. The building was constructed in 1826 and was the Willet Street Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1905, the synagogue bought the church.

In 1966 the building was land marked and it’s one of the only four early 19th century religious Federal period style buildings in Lower Manhattan. It’s made of Manhattan schist from a quarry that use to exist nearby on Pitt Street (our guide told us it’s suppose to be Pit Street but was misspelled). Crazy, trying to picture the days when a quarry use to be right here.

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Manhattan schist from the Pitt Street quarry.

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Williamsburg Bridge in the way background covered by trees. Once called the Jew Highway by the NY Tribune. It was used by LES Jews to migrate to more spacious Williamsburg Brooklyn and to commute from the LES back to Brooklyn.

Ever since I found out that Savannah is home to the 3rd oldest congregation in the USA, I’ve been on a Jewish history kick. I also have a thing for Jewish history but besides that, it’s very important to me because it’s a part of my neighborhood identity.  The Lower East Side is the seat of NYC Jewish history. When I got the email from untapped cities about this tour, I booked it as soon as I could. This is what we did Easter Sunday.

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Men and women have separate stairwells that lead to the basement praying area and the restrooms. Men and women pray separately because women are seen as unclean. There is a separate area covered by sheets for convalescing women and seniors to pray on the ground floor with men since they can’t get upstairs to the women’s area. This is an Orthodox Jewish Congregation.

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Men’s praying area.

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Women pray in back behind the curtain.

When we walked into Bialystoker I said to Vic, “Now this is what I expect temple to look like.” We’ve been to a couple on the LES and they look like Jewish Sanctuaries whereas the ones we’ve seen in Savannah and Charleston have a very churchy kinda feel and make me feel like I’m in a church. But the churchy synagogue feel is cool too because on those tours they explain how down there they are very integrated with each other so that’s really nice too. But in NY, as I walk into temple I feel like a giddy kid learning about the curiosities I’ve always had since the day my Dad pointed out that the cemetery at Chatham Square is the oldest Jewish Cemetery in Manhattan.

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As you walk in you will see the Torah Ark in the front. They believe it’s hand carved from Bialystok, Poland and shipped to New York. The guide mentioned it was appraised and they were told it’s priceless. The  bema (elevated platform in a synagogue) in an Orthodox temple is in the middle but since this was a converted church it’s in the front. We also learned that they are suppose to pray facing east but this one faces west due to the conversion. The images you see on the walls were originally stenciled but hand painted over in the 1980s.

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Bema and the Torah Ark by the stained glass.

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Our guide said that is the sky. Jews are suppose to get married under and open sky and this is ok.

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Yeah, Jewish Gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Seigel’s family worshiped here and donated in his honor. He is known as one of the founders of Murder, Inc., a force behind the development of Las Vegas, and friends with Jewish gangster Meyer Lanksy and Italian Mobster Lucky Luciano. One day I’ll get into mob history in my posts.

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Hebrew is read from right to left.

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When it was a Methodist Church, it is rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. Behind that door is a ladder that leads to the attic.

This is the oldest synagogue in NYC. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was completed 3 years after the Willet Street Church was converted to a Temple. Eldridge Street was a synagogue from the very beginning unlike a lot of converted churches on the LES. Will get to that in a future post.

I didn’t realize – we were going to visit another synagogue! The little kid in me was so delighted.

That’s where Congregation Beth Hachasidim De Polen comes in. There are a lot of tiny congregations that got together in tenement rooms, store fronts and basement, they are called shtielblach (small congregations). This shtiebl  is at 233 East Broadway and was organized in 1904 and is now lead by Rabbi Moshe Stern.

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Our guide, Paul is a 3rd generation Lower East Sider. It was cool hearing him talking about growing up and how he didn’t know much about the culture. He told us a funny story about this shtiebl.

Imagine 6 year old Paul who knew what Orthodox Jews look like but not much else. One day he walked was walking home alone for dinner and some old man grabs his arm. He’s wearing all black, breath smells, long yellow nails. Paul was scared. The old man says to him ,” A chew?” Paul replies, “Bless you.” Old man says again, “A chew” “Bless you,” Paul says again. Old man says again, “No. A chew?” Then it dawns on the little boy and he shakes his head yes, I’m a Jew.

He doesn’t really know what they need him for. They asked him, “Bar Mitzvah?” He shakes his head no. Now he guesses they needed someone who ‘isn’t a man’ yet. One old man makes him put on a prayer shawl and he had to bow about 15 times he thinks. When he was done with one old man he had to do it for another, then another, then another. His mom was angry at him when he got home because dinner was cold and he was late for dinner. He said after 6 times of walking by the block he learned to avoid it so he could get home to dinner on time and not be scared of the basement people who he couldn’t understand. He thinks they were from Poland and maybe Estonia.

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Inside the shtiebl. It’s hard to see in the background. There’s a curtain to divide the women’s praying area from the men’s.

We also learned the very old books in the shtiebl that aggravate everyone’s asthma can’t be tossed out because they have the name of God written in them. To dispose of them they have to be buried in consecrated ground. Paul said that one day when construction was going on he joked to toss the books in and they said no – not proper. It’s good to know the men in black from the basement no longer freak Paul out. Very cute personal story.

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13 thoughts on “Bialystoker Synagogue & Congregation Beth Hachasidim De Polen

    1. Thanks! I’m on a synagogue kick. I realized I’ve been to more synagogues then Buddhist temples and my grandma was Buddhist. I didn’t really go with her though. I like how this one was probably a stop on the underground railroad. We’ve been to temple in Curacao – they have sand on the floor! I have to repost that. I use to take a whole trip and post it all in one post and the pics got lost that way.

  1. I have mixed feelings about entering religious spaces that segregate men from women. (Especially that argument about “women being unclean.” Agh!) Last year I visited a mosque as part of a ecumenical service my church participated in, and all of the women in our group were forced to sit separately in the women’s section in the basement while the service was piped in through speakers. We were not happy, though one of the female members of the mosque said she liked sitting down there because it felt safe and “women centered.” I understand that feeling, but I was not comfortable with the circumstances, even after our hosts brought us wonderful tea and refreshments.

    That said, I also enjoy visiting synagogues. So far I’ve only been in Reformed ones, however. The one in Pittsburgh where my older daughter had her MPA graduation ceremony was beautiful, with stained glass windows. The layout was also “churchy,” with wooden pews and Victorian brick architecture, like a 19th century Presbyterian church. They had a very nice, modern social hall too, where we had sparkling wine (not champagne, sniffed my son-in-law) and hors d’oeuvres.

    Paul’s story about being “nabbed” by the old Jewish man made me laugh, but boy, things have changed since then! If that happened to a child today, the parents would be on the phone calling the police. It’s too bad: life was a lot more innocent back then. I wonder if that ceremony is even practiced today, or if it was unique to that synagogue or that particular group of worshippers.

    1. That’s a good question about Paul – if it’s still practiced. I didn’t ask. Thinking maybe but I don’t think they can nab anyone off the street now. The only thing that kept crossing my mind was ‘how is your mom not going crazy?’ since the area has always had a rough reputation. Then again, my Dad ran around as a kid. I know the 1970-80s were bad.

      Since we visited on a tour we didn’t have to follow any of the rules. The guides just explained everything to us.

      I always thought I had it out for the Chinese Culture. Growing up I always heard that they were disappointed I was born because I wasn’t a boy. Boy this, boy that. That’s the Chinese way. I use to ask if they loved me less then. I have a lot of issues with the culture. One day I was hanging out with my friend who married a Sicilian guy. When she visited his family he asked her if she could go to the kitchen with the rest of the women and girls so he won’t look bad. That’s when I realized that in any culture I would throw down and have a fit. In Savannah, I realized I like learning about cultures and traditions but as soon as I have to conform to one – all hell breaks loose. I don’t understand my friends that are girls and Chinese – they always say its the Chinese way and it’s tradition – all the backwards stuff about women. My thing is if you are born and raised here (about my age group) I don’t understand how you can follow that stuff. I have heard it all to and since I was a very little kid I never understood why being born a girl meant I was treated differently. I always say that the backwards traditions keep continuing on because they (the women) allow it and hide behind the culture. Their defense and follow the women submission allows all that ‘boys is better stuff’ to go on. I do not and will never understand that. Some things have to go. I never wanted to marry Chinese and I avoided Vic for over a year. His family isn’t like that. They explain the tradition but his grandfather wanted all his daughters to get an education and better themselves. I think he has the most progressive family.

      Never realized reformed temples – do the men and women sit together? I always assumed separate? Have to ask on the next tour.

      1. The 70s and 80s in New York were rough! I amuse my kids by babbling about how incredibly clean and safe the subways are and how weird it is for me to walk around certain neighborhoods alone (Hell’s Kitchen didn’t have that name for nothing) and not have to worry about being mugged. When I first visited NYC in 1974 (I was a teenager back then!) I had my purse snatched in Times Square. I was scared to walk outside our sublet by myself. We were in the Village, and just a month earlier, a young couple had been murdered in their apartment around the corner from us. Now, there’s no comparison. The place is actually safer than the CA city I live in now.

        Don’t get me started about the traditional East Asian preference for boys and how girls are regarded as parasites or a burden on the family. When I told my father I wanted to go to college, he said that “Education is wasted on girls. They get married and they don’t have to work.” I had to start out at a community college before transferring to a university on a scholarship. My brother on the other hand, the high school dropout, went straight to a state university paid for by our parents. He flunked out after his freshman year because he couldn’t do the work. When I finished school, my parents framed my diploma and hung it on the wall in their house. Dad had the nerve to say to me, “What you do, reflects on me.” I replied, “Well, that’s funny! You always used to say I was stupid!” Grr!

        What’s really sad is that I meet Asian women who weren’t allowed to go to college themselves, so they throw all their frustrated ambition behind their kids. The kids hate it because they feel their mothers put too much pressure on them to succeed at all costs. The moms should really try to go to college themselves, but they say “it’s a waste of money” and “it’s too late,” and they’d rather put all their resources into their kids. But the better educated the mothers are, the better off the children are. That’s a proven fact. Plus, the mothers wouldn’t be so angry or pushy if they understood how hard it is to get through college.

        Reformed Judaism was created by American Jews who wanted their faith to reflect progressive values and American culture. So yes, women not only sit with the men during services, they study to become rabbis, they sit on the governing boards and have the same rights as their fellow male congregants. It’s interesting, but there is no Orthodox synagogue around my town. They’re all Reformed, albeit some are politically more conservative than others.

      2. Kindred spirit. Now I get why David Bowie was such a relief!

        Now I will read into Reformed Judaism. The temple in Charleston was reformed. I’m so use to Orthodox I never thought to look into the differences. My friend’s mom once helped an Orthdox man up who feel. She’s Puerto Rican. and lived on the Jewish side of the Lower East Side. That’s when I found out don’t help them out. My friend told me the guy was very upset. It’s pretty interesting how we all live so close yet don’t know much about each other.

        I wasn’t allowed to go to certain areas growing up. Def, not Times Square. We went for the occasional Bway show. The rule of thumb was – don’t go farther east. Stay away from Alphabet City and deeper east on the LES. Occasionally I went to those areas but never alone. Loving Hewll’s Kitchen. I want to spend mroe time exploring there one day. That’s where I volunteer. Feel less pretentios than the LES. The mallification (not even sure if that’s a word) is getting to me. Freezing the city in the late 90s/early 2000s would be perfect for me. Eash area still had it’s charm and it was safer. The interesting things is there’s been an uptick in crime on the LES. Doesn’t affect the new residents. I feel like if locals have to deal with getting mugged so should the new comers. But they are the ones that are more likely to go to the police and the police help them more so they target locals. At the same time the idiot mayor pissed off his police force. He should have handled the Black Live Matter situation better. They matter but he insulted his entire police force. Not smart, they put themselves on the line to keep us safe and it makes me wonder if that could be why there’s an uptick in crime. Really don’t like this mayor. Thought we were going to see some real changes. Thought he’s preserve low income and affordable housing, says he’s for the working class.His plans area crap. They further increase gentrification and his plans are poorly designed for the preservation of affordable housing. I hate the fact that one day in the future a tourist from a small town will see my city for all the Starbucks, chain stores that’s it’s become. Trust fund baby art is the face of NYC since the real artists can’t afford it. It makes me so sad.

        You got me a bit curious to check out that math link.

      3. I had qualms about Mayor de Blasio when he announced that, as his first act as mayor, he would abolish the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park and other parts of the city. I realize the carriages are controversial, and there have been questions about how humanely the horses are treated. Watching them carry a load of tourists in 90-degree heat in the summer, I feel bad, however much I would love to ride in a carriage. But I found myself asking, ‘Of all the issues facing the city right now—affordable housing for families, the poor and the middle class, police relations with the communities of color, crumbling infrastructure, struggling city schools—you have to go after the carriages?’ I’m not sure if Bloomberg was much better at preventing old buildings from being torn down for luxury housing, but he seemed to have a steadier grasp of what was important to the city’s well being. I have left-wing friends who say he was too close to the police, but I expect that in NYC the mayor has to be in order to run the place. Maybe I shouldn’t be making judgements: my son-in-law and I get into discussions about the city’s politics and he often says I don’t know enough to comment. 😦

        I still love the city, though.

      4. Like Forgotten NY a lot! 🙂 By the way, have you ever been to the Hamilton Grange National Memorial or the Morris-Jumel Mansion? Those are on my “Places to visit the next time I’m in NYC.” I love old colonial buildings, partly because you never see them on the West Coast, and partly because I love 18th century history. I’ve never really been to Harlem either, unless you count my trip to St. John the Divine.

      5. Been to Morris-Jumel. There’s a a cool old street, Sylvan Terrace that runs into it. Looking at that street feels like you stepped back in time. Found out the Apollo has amateur nights on Weds and the tickets are very affordable! Curious about the other place you mentioned. We get lazy. It takes meat least 1 hour and 15min to get up there.

      6. It takes me over an hour to get to Upper Manhattan from where my daughter lives in Queens. I have to take the train into Manhattan, get off at 49th Street and take the C train going north. People who’ve never been to New York say to me, “Aren’t you scared to go to Harlem by yourself? And riding the subway alone?” I haven’t had a problem with riding the subway or the bus, though I’ve never ridden either of them late at night. I think the worse thing that’s ever happened was when I got turned around looking for the Asia Society and ended up at Cornell University Hospital and the East River. (Oops.) People are generally nice about giving directions, but when I’m tired, I get goofy and forget which way I’m supposed to go.

        The Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s home from the 1780s, has gotten crazy popular since the musical “Hamilton” came out on Broadway. I’d go see it even it there wasn’t a musical about Hamilton, though I’d love to get tickets to it someday. The traveling show is opening in Fall 2017 in San Francisco, but the tickets are selling for $500 a pop, which is crazy even in San Francisco. So I’ll settle for seeing his house! 🙂

      7. Broadway tickets are so expensive now. I remember paying $80 for 2nd row mezz back in 1998. That was a long time ago.

        I think Harlem is fine. You have to be careful in some parts. My friend lives there so I go up from time to time. I wouldn’t go at night there or Washington Heights or certain parts of the Bronx especially if you aren’t use to it. I’m really shocks when people freak out about the Lower East Side late at night. It’s not that bad but you have to know where to walk so I always say avoid after dark if you aren’t use to it. Better be safe than sorry. Where my friend lives in Harlem I feel fine during the day. Not so sure how I’d feel at night. I also live in a neighborhood where I feel safe enough to go out any time of day by myself. When I realized I was getting soft because of Bay Ridge I started to make it a point to go to iffier places so I’d feel more comfy again. There aren’t many neighborhood that I feel you can go out all times of day as a female and be ok. I’m lucky that I moved to one.

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