Tucked away on East 7th Street between Avenues C and D is the former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn. This small synagogue, designed in the classical revival style, is set amidst Old and New Law tenements. It’s a small but striking reminder of a time when New York was home to the second largest Jewish community in the world, and the Lower East side housed numerous small synagogues meeting the spiritual needs of this immigrant community.
Constructed in 1908 and designed by the firm of Gross & Kleinberger, this synagogue was built by a Hungarian congregation, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn, or the Great House of Study of the People of Hungary. This congregation was formed in 1883 and had outgrown several previous sites before constructing this building.
Over the years, the demographics of the Lower East side changed, and its Jewish population declined. Many of the synagogues were converted, closed or demolished. This congregation stayed active until 1975, and in 1985 the building was converted to residential use.
By the latter half of the 19th century, the Lower East Side and what is today known as the East Village was home to a large German immigrant community, known as Kleindeutshland, or “Little Germany.” Although these immigrants were classified as German, this name covered a multitude of ethnicities, and people tended to subdivide themselves preferring to live among others who came from the same native communities and regions.
Similarly, during the last 20 years of the 19th century, approximately half a million Jews from Eastern Europe moved to the United States. Among the huge numbers of Jewish immigrants coming to New York between 1848 and 1914, approximately 100,000 were from Hungary, and the Hungarian Jews formed a distinct group. Within the Lower East Side, the Hungarian section was generally located from Houston Street to 10th Street and between Avenue B and the East River.
The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn was founded in 1883, and its first headquarters were located at 48 Columbia Street. In 1889 the congregation built a new building at 70 Willett Street, and in 1907 the congregation purchased 242 East 7th Street from Lena Zeichner along the stretch of East 7th Street which during the 19th century had been known as Political Row. At that time the site housed a three story brick house with a pitched roof. The design for the new building included the removal of the front and rear walls and extended the building footprint four feet to the front of the original and 32 feet to the rear. The new building cost $10,000 and its sanctuary seated 500 people. The front facade is clad in stone finished in a refined, classical revival style and exhibits highly developed details and fine workmanship, expressive of the aspirations of the congregation, one of the luckier and more established ones which could afford to build a home of its own. The facade is in a tripartite arrangement with a central raised entry, typical in synagogue design. Its details include pilasters, dentils and window moldings so that its use and purpose are immediately recognizable. The classical style was held at that time as appropriate for synagogue design. As stated by prominent synagogue designer Arnold Bruner in 1907 in the publication Brickbuilder, “I am unhesitatingly of the opinion that the latter (Classical style) is the one that is fit and proper for the synagogue in America. With the sanction of antiquity it perpetuates the best traditions of Jewish art and takes up a thread which was broken by circumstances, of a vigorous and once healthy style.”
Today 242 East 7th Street remains as a reminder of the once vibrant Jewish community that populated the Lower East Side and in 2007 it became a New York City Landmark (click HERE for the designation report). To learn about our efforts for the designation of another Lower East Side synagogue, Congregation Mezritch, click HERE).