This is Not a Church (Village Presbyterian Synagogue Apartments) (13th Street)




Walking up to and past this Greek revival 1846, the first thing you’ll note is the grand style, the big white columns and white pediment whose bright, sharply defined color and large shapes are set off against the homogeneous, more humble red brickwork of the neighborhood townhouses that surround it. What you won’t know at first sight, and don’t be fooled by the old church message board outside, is that the church closed a long time ago and that the site is now occupied by residential apartments, now called “Portico Place,” at least by its developers. To preserve the historic façade, the entry into the apartments was placed inconspicuously at the side of the building. This also preserves the illusion that “this is a church.”

That’s the first thing you won’t know, just by looking at it. The other thing you won’t know is that between 1954 and 1973, the building was shared with the Brotherhood Synagogue. Apparently the church was built on land once owned by and purchased by Shearith Israel, the old Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. In 1954, faced with declining membership, the church invited Brotherhood Synagogue to share the facility. Its pastor and rabbi, the Reverend Dr. Jesse W. Stit and Rabbi Irving Block were something of a celebrity team. They appeared in the press and on popular shows like The Big Surprise and I’ve Got a Secret. The whole thing began to unravel after Rev. Stit died and fell apart completely in 1973.

I lifted most of this information about Village Presbyterian Brotherhood Synagogue in Manhattan at Mid-Century: An Oral History (pp.111-13). The institutional break-up is explained here in Rabbi Block’s 2002 obituary. “Matters came to a head during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when Rabbi Block posted a big sign outside the building saying, ”May there be victory for Israel.” Mr. Glenesk [the new pastor at the church] put up another notice apologizing for ”the arrogant, self-righteous sign posted outside our sanctuary.” On March 19 the following year, the partnership formally ended when Rabbi Block and members of the Brotherhood Synagogue walked in procession down the sanctuary steps into the street carrying away their Torah scrolls.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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