New York Architecture Images-Upper West Side

Congregation Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue)


Arnold Brunner


Central Park West at 70th Street.










Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue, New York


CSI interior


Congregation Shearith Israel, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the City of New York, was founded in 1654 CE, the first Jewish congregation to be established in North America.  Its founders were twenty-three Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had been living in Recife, Brazil.  When the Portuguese defeated the Dutch for control of Recife, and brought with them the Inquisition, the Jews of that area left.  Some returned to Amsterdam, where they had originated.  Others went to places in the Caribbean such as St. Thomas, Jamaica, Surinam and Curacao, where they founded sister Sephardic congregations.  One group of twenty-three Jews, after a series of unexpected events, landed in New Amsterdam.  They were not welcomed by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who did not wish to permit the Jews to settle here.  However, these pioneers fought for their rights and won permission to remain.  During colonial days, the Jewish community was relatively small.

Until they year 1730, the Congregation met in rented quarters.  In 1730, Shearith Israel consecrated its first synagogue building on Mill Street, now known as South William Street.  Many of the furnishings of that building are preserved in The Little Synagogue.

Shearith Israel was the only Jewish Congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825.  During that entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged to this Congregation, which provided for all the needs of the Jewish community, from birth to death.  It offered education in both religious and general subjects, provided kosher meat and Passover provisions, and performed a wide variety of charitable and other functions for the Jewish people.

Many of the congregates served the cause of the American Revolution, and each year a special Memorial Day service is held at The historic Chatham Square cemetery, in which we pay tribute to those who served in the Revolutionary Army.  Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, who was the religious leader of Shearith Israel for a period spanning fifty years (including the Revolutionary War Period), was a great patriot.  He was involved in many communal activities and was among the founders of Columbia University, then Kings College.  Members of Shearith Israel played an important role in civic life from the earliest times.  Three of The members, Benjamin Mendes Seixas, Ephraim Hart and Alexander Zuntz, were among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange.

Shearith Israel, or members of the Congregation, have been involved in founding many institutions in New York City, such as Mt. Sinai Hospital, Montefiore Hospital, the Lexington School for the Deaf, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Sephardic Studies Program of Yeshiva University, the Union of Sephardic Congregations and so many more.  Among The members have been Emma Lazarus, the famous poet; Judge Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, United States Supreme Court Justice; Professor Cecil Roth, eminent Jewish historian and Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, first Jewish flag officer in the United States Navy.  Many of the congregates have distinguished themselves in all areas of civic and communal life.

Even from its earliest days, Shearith Israel had Sephardic and Ashkenazic members.  Although the synagogue service follows the custom of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, the membership is diverse, and at present is composed of Sephardim and Ashkenazim who work together in harmony for the well-being of the Congregation and community.

Inside of Synagogue

The present synagogue building, on 70th Street and Central Park West, is the fifth which The Congregation has occupied.  The first synagogue on Mill Street, built in 1730, was replaced by a larger structure on the same site in 1818.  In 1834, the Congregation moved to a new building on Crosby Street, and in 1860, Shearith Israel built its fourth home, on West 19th Street, near Fifth Avenue.  As New York City continued to grow and the population moved northward, Shearith Israel built this building on 70th Street and Central Park West, designed by the noted architect, Arnold Brunner.

The present synagogue is constructed in the style of Spanish and Portuguese congregations.  The reader’s desk is towards the rear-center of the room.  According to tradition, the floor boards of the reader’s desk date back to the reader’s desk in The Mill Street synagogue of 1730, highlighting the continuity of the generations in Shearith Israel.  The clergy of the Congregation sit on the semi-circular bench behind the reader’s desk.  The President and Vice-president sit on the benches against the east wall.  Sermons are delivered from the pulpit.  There is a choir loft above the Ark and a professional all-male choir participates in Sabbath and holiday services.

The steps leading to the Ark are of Numidian marble.  The wall surrounding the Ark is made of Sienna marble.  The Louis Tiffany studios crafted the stained glass windows.  Four lamps on the eastern walls were dedicated to the memory of men who died during the First World War.  At the entrance to the synagogue, there are two millstones that were from Mill Street, the location of the town miller during the early colonial period.  They were taken from the site of The first Mill Street synagogue as a reminder of The historic roots in the city.

The religious services are conducted according to the Spanish and Portuguese minhag (custom).  Much of the service is read aloud and sung by the congregation together with the Hazzan.

Each holiday has its own unique melody associated with it and there are also visual reminders for different occasions.  For example, on a regular Sabbath, the Torah scrolls are covered with a red brocade material.  On festival days and special Shabbatot, the cloaks are of different colors.  On the High Holy Days, these cloaks, as well as the lining of the Ark and the covering of the reader’s desk and pulpit, are all white.  The Ark contains the Torah scrolls, each decorated by a set of bells.  One set was presented to the Congregation on the occasion of the dedication of the Mill Street synagogue of 1730, and is used each year on the anniversary of that consecration.  There are two pairs of bells which were crafted by the noted silversmith of the Revolutionary period, Myer Myers, who also served as President of the Congregation.

In the present building, is a replica of The Mill Street synagogue—the Little Synagogue.  It is used daily for morning and evening services, small weddings, baby namings and Berith Milahs.  Items from the Mill Street synagogue include the reader’s desk in the center of the room, the railing and the four candlesticks surrounding it, the Ner Tamid (the perpetual light), the Ten Commandments tablet over the Ark, the benches along the south wall, and the Sabbath lamp hanging in front of the west window.  The benches along the western and northern walls as well as the two benches on either side of the Ark are from the Crosby Street synagogue of 1834.  One of the memorial lamps hanging on the northern wall served as the Ner Tamid in the 19th Street synagogue.

The congregation today is quite active with many Congregational Societies, including the Sisterhood, Men’s Club, League and the Youth Service Council.  In addition there is the Hebra Hased Va-Amet, founded in 1802, and the Hebrew Relief Society, founded in 1828; the oldest burial and charitable societies in the United States.  Shearith Israel sponsors adult education classes, public programs, and has continued to serve the spiritual, intellectual and communal needs of The community.  The history of well over three centuries provides stability, strength, and confidence. 


Prayer Services are held daily, morning, and evening, as well as on Sabbath and holidays.

The Congregation sponsors a wide array of religious, educational and cultural programs, as well as a religious school for children, and a pre-school program.

The Congregational societies include the Sisterhood, Shearith Israel League, Hebra Hased Va-Amet and the Hebrew Relief Society.

The Congregation houses archives dating back to colonial days. The "Friends of Shearith Israel" is a society of individuals throughout the world who wish to support the work of the Congregation. Friends of Shearith Israel receive mailings and publications and become part of the extended community of Shearith Israel.

For more information on the activities of Shearith Israel, please see the rest of our website. Feel free to call the synagogue office. We look forward to hearing from you soon and to seeing you at our historic synagogue building.
Member and Founder of the Union of
Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

8 West 70th Street, New York, NY 10023
Telephone: 212.873.0300
Fax: 212.724.6165
General Information:

70th Street Between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue; A Block Full of Late-19th-Century Row Houses 

Published: February 16, 2003, Sunday 

JOAN COHEN says she bought her brownstone at 41 West 70th Street five years ago because the peaceful, expansive block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, with its generously sized late-19th-century row houses, has remained largely unchanged since a couple of apartment buildings sneaked in during the first part of the 20th century. But with an apartment house projected for a triple lot at 8 West 70th, the situation may be about to change. 
The oldest row houses on the block are the picturesque brick and brownstone set at 60-64 West 70th, just in from Columbus Avenue, designed in 1886. They have unusual corner chimneys and panels of carved ornament of almost Celtic form, designed by Hubert, Pirrson & Company. 

Across the street, the developer-architect Charles Buek built the row at 53-63 West 70th in 1891, giving the houses slightly varying facades to avoid the cookie-cutter quality that high-end purchasers had come to shy away from. In the early 1890's, Gilbert Schellenger designed two slightly more conventional sets of houses, at Nos. 33-41 (1892) and Nos. 43-51 West 70th (1891). 

Not long after the house at No. 51 was built, it was bought by Dr. Simon Baruch, a social activist and advocate of municipal baths. Baruch, who was born in Germany and emigrated to Virginia before the Civil War, had been a surgeon in the Confederate army. Along with his wife, Isabelle, he generally opposed feminist causes like suffrage. In 1914, Mrs. Baruch was interviewed by The New York Times under the headline ''Modern Womanhood Sadly Shirks Its Holy Duty.'' 

Their son, Bernard M. Baruch, a financier and an adviser to Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, lived in the house for a few years when he was in his 20's. 

Across on the south side of the street, a house at No. 38 is the only one left of a group designed in 1888 by the architect Charles Clinton. An early photograph shows a picturesque row, with varying roof lines with Flemish gables. Next to it, at 40-58 West 70th, the architects Thom & Wilson designed a suave, elegant series of brick and brownstone houses, with particularly graceful carving in brownstone around the windows. 

A close inspection, by ascending the stoops, reveals details like inner storm doors set into angled recesses. When they are folded away, they look as if they are part of the paneling in the vestibule. Several of these houses have deliciously untouched brownstone, deep and rich; they have not been misguidedly restored with the usual brown stucco. 

In this row two families with now-familiar names -- Goldman and Sachs -- once lived side by side, at Nos. 44 and 46 West 70th. Samuel Sachs lived at No. 44 in the 1890's with his wife, Louisa, two children and six servants. He had been associated since 1882 with his father-in-law, Marcus Goldman, in the firm of Goldman, Sachs. Goldman lived next door at No. 46. Both these houses, and many in this row, have exquisite quartered oak visible in their vestibules, with the bright highlights and deeper, mellow sections typical of the Victorian era. 

Next door to the 1888 house at No. 38 is the nine-story 30 West 70th of 1916, an early apartment house project by the developer Julius Tishman. 

Back on the north side of the street, two separate rows extend to the corner apartment house at 101 Central Park West: 23-31 West 70th, designed by Gilbert Schellenger and finished in 1892; and 9-21 West 70th, built in 1894 and designed by Thom & Wilson. Although the Schellenger houses have some competent carving on the lower sections of their oriel windows, he did not have the touch Thom & Wilson did. Their row is light and sophisticated, with a deft use of Roman brick. 

The Austrian-born psychiatrist Abraham A. Brill lived in the house at No. 15 in the 1910's and 1920's. His 1948 obituary in The Times said that he introduced writings of Freud to the English-speaking world by lecturing and translating Freud's books, among them ''The Interpretation of Dreams,'' published in English in 1913. ''Many new phrases, which have now become household words, such as 'libido' and 'Oedipus Complex,' were first introduced into the American language by Dr. Brill,'' The Times said. 

On the south side of the street, Thom & Wilson designed another row in the early 1890's, Nos. 22-28. The Real Estate Record and Guide noted that in each house there was a gas log fireplace next to the commode in the bathroom, a room that it said was ''unsurpassed on the West Side.'' The room also included a divan and a shower ''with India rubber enclosure'' -- an apparent reference to the shower curtain. 

Of another row, designed by Buchman & Deisler, only No. 20 survives. Next door, at No. 18, is a 1925 apartment house, and beyond that a vacant lot at 10 West 70th. 

Except for the two midblock apartment buildings, this block of 70th Street saw little change through the 1920's -- at least physical change. The 1925 census recorded the Canadian-born Anna Swift, 40, described as a chiropractor, living in a house at 8 West 70th Street with her sister, two nieces, a nephew and three servants. In 1936, Swift, who operated 8 West 70th as the ''Danish Institute,'' was convicted of prostitution. She served a sentence, but then in 1940 was arrested again at the house -- along with several women described as masseuses -- and again convicted. 

After World War II the changes were incremental, although Swift's house, near Central Park West, was taken over by Congregation Shearith Israel, whose synagogue building is at the corner. In 1953 the congregation remade it and an adjacent building into a community house. 

The first design was for a glass-walled structure, but the congregation ultimately chose a masonry front very evocative of its time -- with two-tone cast stone, an off-center entry with a beveled surround, and banded bays of windows. 

There are a few other midcentury traces on the block, some rather nice, like the 1950's terrazzo floor in the lobby of 54 West 70th with the cardinal points of the compass. But a few are rather painful, like the rather brutal subdivisions into apartments of once elegant houses like Nos. 59 and 61. 

IN recent years the large row houses on this block have attracted a generation of owners who have recombined cut-up apartments and rebuilt at least one lost stoop. In 1999 the architects Feingold & Gregory designed a new stoop for No. 9, a project completed in 2000. 

The house at No. 41 is empty and partly gutted, as the Cohens begin the long process of reconverting it from apartment use. Mrs. Cohen said that they bought in 1998 but did not get full possession until last year. She said that much of the interior detail had been lost but that she was attracted to the house because she ''can't see any postwar construction from the front or the rear,'' except for the Shearith Israel community house. 

That may change. Last year the architects Platt Byard Dovell White filed plans for an apartment building to replace the Shearith Israel community house and the vacant lot at No. 10. Samuel White of the firm said that the building would be built by Shearith Israel, working with a developer yet to be chosen, and that it would be 14 stories tall -- shorter than the 18-story apartment house at 101 Central Park West across the street. 

Mr. White said that the design, which requires the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and other agencies, would provide Shearith Israel with income, as well as four floors of offices, classrooms and meeting rooms. The block is part of the Central Park West Historic District. 

He said that his firm had avoided a retro feeling and had designed a facade with a screen of warm-colored stone in front of a glass wall, with the stone dropped back from the corners to reveal the glass. ''We wanted a sharp definition between the synagogue and this building,'' he said. 

Published: 02 - 16 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 1 , Page 7 

Copyright New York Times.

Streetscapes/Congregation B'nai Jeshurun;Future Uncertain, a 1919 Synagogue Begins Repairs 
Published: February 11, 1996, Sunday 

FORCED out of their building by a ceiling collapse five years ago, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun at 257 West 88th Street has only now begun to repair its synagogue. 
But while the worshipers have been out of their 1,100-seat 1919 synagogue the congregation has grown to 2,000 members, and it is not clear when B'nai Jeshurun will return to its original building -- if ever. 

B'nai Jeshurun was founded in 1825 by German and Polish Jews splitting off from Temple Shearith Israel, which conducted its services in Portuguese. In 1885, after a gradual migration uptown, the congregation built a synagogue on the west side of Madison Avenue, between 64th and 65th Street; it still stands, although cut down and now a two-story store building. 

In 1910 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that B'nai Jeshurun was looking for a West Side site, at the northwest corner of 87th and Central Park West. But it was not until 1916 when the congregation bought and demolished some old rowhouses on the north side of 88th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. 

The architects Henry B. Herts and Walter S. Schneider, both members of B'nai Jeshurun, joined together on this project. They developed a chunky, squarish front of roughened, tawny granite with slightly battered walls and a central doorway -- modeled, they stated, on an Egyptian temple at Aswan. 

For American Jews, who lacked the kind of architectural precedents that Christians took for granted, the form and decoration of synagogues has often been a difficult issue when building. 

The interior, decorated by Emil Phillipson, is a giant cube, with a gallery around three sides and a huge perforated screen at the sanctuary. 

The magazine Architecture described the interior as "a free interpretation of Coptic design, with suggestions from Moorish and Persian sources . . . insuring a Semitic character that certainly no classic treatment of columns and cornices could approach." This is especially evident at the richly worked ceiling, with large panels of downward projecting decoration, "pendant stalactites in stone," according to The New York Times in 1925. In the center is an arcaded dome lighting the interior. 

While construction was under way Israel Goldstein, 22 years old, became rabbi. Dr. Goldstein became prominent in Jewish affairs, continuing as B'nai Jeshurun's rabbi while at various times serving as chairman or president of the United Jewish Appeal, the American Jewish Congress, the New York Board of Rabbis and other organizations. He retired in 1960. 

In 1989 the Landmarks Preservation Commission included the synagogue in the Riverside-West End Historic District. That designation only regulated the exteriors of buildings, not their interiors, and the law establishing the commission specifically exempts the interiors of houses of worship. 

I N 1991, while repair work on the upper part of the structure was under way, a section of the decorative ceiling measuring about 10 by 15 feet fell, but did not injure anyone. It was apparently one of the "stalactite" sections that fell. 

The B'nai Jeshurun congregation moved out. It now rents space to worship at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, at 86th and West End, and only last month its architectural firm, Bromley Caldari, of Manhattan, filed plans at the Department of Buildings to remove the rest of the ceiling. 

Neither the synagogue's office nor Richard Janvey, the president of the congregation, would return calls on the matter. But Peter Krulewitch, a West Side resident who is a former board member of the synagogue, said that disputes with the insurance company and the contractor have only recently been settled. Congregation members report that the removal of the ceiling has become a matter of some controversy within the congregation, and that there are indeed differing opinions as to whether to reoccupy the building. 

Recently B'nai Jeshurun established a second Friday service at St. Paul and St. Andrew, which seats only 800 people. In 1994, the synagogue and the Methodist church announced a plan to demolish the house of worship and jointly build a residential tower with religious space below, but this has not yet gone ahead. Mr. Krulewitch says the synagogue now also rents space during High Holy Days at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 96th and Central Park West, and has sought to buy the 2,400-seat church. 

"When I came here we had 200 families, now we're up to 2,000 members," says Mr. Krulewitch. 

"The revival of interest started about 10 years ago with Marshall Meyer, a new rabbi. He was an enormously charismatic man, but died in 1994. Now it just continues to grow. Our old building just will no longer house us." 

Published: 02 - 11 - 1996 , Late Edition - Final , Section 9 , Column 1 , Page 7 

Copyright New York Times.