Another in a long line of articles featuring the sad, unforgiving tensions between religion and real estate in a secular age. This one is a wrenching article here in NYT featuring the edifice of Shaare Zedek (dedicated in 1923 after the shul moved up from its previous location in Harlem). The grand neo-classical structure will be torn down and replaced by, no doubt, a garish glass and steel residential tower, with the synagogue retaining the first three stories of the new building. With a dwindling congregation and the high cost of building maintenance, it is, to be sure, the only way for the community to survive. But at what terrible forgetting this material, architectural cost to the congregation and to the lived life of the city fabric. Pretty soon, there will be nothing left to look at, no place to enter into in the city that isn’t brand new and costing tens of millions of dollars. Think about the Highline and the new Whitney or Columbia University’s new Manhattanville campus. But what an awful indictment of liberal Judaism as it struggles to meet the challenges of sustaining itself in a new, technological century. Or is it more simple than that? The destruction of this particular structure puts a close to an era, finishing it off. Religion simply has to let “things” go in a modern, dynamical urban setting. It’s the synagogue that wants to sell off the building to sustain the community, while it is the neighbors who want to preserve the physical site. That’s another disjoint to this story. If the neighbors were invested in the building exterior, they might have done more to contribute to the life of the world inside that the structure creates and contains. In this century, only the new survives.
Historic structures are a difficult call for a congregation. Back in the 1960’s the shul to which I belong elected to stay in our historically significant building in Uptown Oakland. Ethically it was the right call; the shul was one of the few white institutions to remain. Aesthetically it was the right call; it’s a gorgeous Beaux Arts structure and one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the West. However it is hideously expensive to keep up – it EATS money. Our options for making it accessible are limited by its listing as an historic structure. So while it is sad to see old synagogues replaced with newer buildings I can understand why their Board may have made that choice. There’s a lot you can do with money that isn’t going to maintain a lovely old place.