By Aaron Short, Special to NYJL
This story is the first in an occasional series about Shabbos services at city synagogues, which are a window into contemporary Jewish life in New York.
The sound is faint, but unmistakable.
If you stand at the corner of Broome and Willett streets on an early Friday evening, you can hear the wail of Williamsburg Shabbos sirens wafting over the East River.
During the next 15 minutes, a handful of Orthodox Jews trickles into the basement of Bialystoker Synagogue, a shul whose congregation has been in operation since the end of the Civil War.
It is not the oldest congregation in the city, but it may be in the oldest building.
Built in 1826, its two-story structure made from Manhattan schist served a Methodist Protestant denomination. The sanctuary reportedly once housed runaway slaves in its attic as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Members of the Bialystoker congregation, Polish immigrants who worshiped in buildings on Hester Street and then Orchard Street, purchased the Willett Street property in 1905.
Bialystoker is one of five synagogues on the Lower East Side—a neighborhood once home to 70 synagogues and 350 congregations a century ago. Nearly 550,000 Jews lived in the area.
The Lower East Side’s Jewish population has dwindled in recent decades, but the synagogue remains extraordinarily active on the weekends and in the morning hours, when commuters stop in to pray as early as 5:30 a.m.
During the summer months, the shul holds two Friday-night prayer services—one at 6:45 p.m. for people who want to eat dinner earlier, and another at sundown.
One man who said his name was Vas was just leaving the first service on a misty August evening. He lives in a co-op on Grand Street, one of four 20-story brick buildings financed by labor unions in the 1950s and home to many of Bialystoker’s congregants.
Vas recalled that one young couple in his co-op had to bring their newborn to an administrator in order to move into a two-bedroom unit.
“These were the real socialists,” Vas said. “Bernie Sanders is just a warmed-over socialist. You asked for what you needed and got only what you deserved.”
You’re far more likely to see a civil court judge than a garment worker in a service these days. The shul has five judges among its membership, although one recently retired.
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is a Bialystoker member as well. He once declined a hardship prayer at a Saturday service days after he was arrested in January 2015 for allegedly taking $4 million in kickbacks. A state appellate court overturned his conviction last month.
Silver wasn’t at the service I attended. Neither was the shul’s rabbi, Zvi David Romm. Most of the regulars decamp to second homes in the Catskills, congregants said.
For a sleepy Friday in the middle of August, the shul drew a healthy crowd of three dozen men, mostly middle-age fathers and their teenage sons, although several attendees appeared younger than 40. Nearly everyone wore dark suits and about half wore black Borsalino felt hats.
Women typically attend morning prayers and Saturday shabbat services when the synagogue opens its striking main sanctuary for its largest crowd of the week, congregants said.
Those who attend Friday services walk down steps from the street into a low-ceilinged ground-level space crammed with prayer books and well-worn wooden benches.
The evening service lasts a crisp 45 minutes and is entirely in Hebrew, although the majority of congregants use a Hebrew-English siddur called ArtScroll Ashkenaz.
On my way out I noticed Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Shlomo Hagler, a former president of Bialystoker, who spoke briefly about the shul’s history while his two sons kept asking him what they were having for dinner. They walked out of the shul and into a warm, light rain that greeted them.
Bialystoker Shul is located at 7 Willett Street, Manhattan. For more information visit http://www.bialystoker.org/