Historic synagogue conjures up Jewish immigrant life for DMU students

Meticulously restored, a historic synagogue in Manhattan was the spiritual setting of a visit by History students from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

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The Museum at Eldridge Street - housed in Eldridge Street Synagogue which opened in 1887 - tells the story of Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side while exploring its architecture and preservation.

Students heard from a passionate tour guide that it was built during a period of mass immigration to the United States (1880-1924) - including more than 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe - and provided a sanctuary from the crowded streets, poor living conditions and factories.

It flourished for 50 years but began to decline when the 1924 Immigrant Quota Laws were introduced, forcing many families to relocate to outer boroughs. In the 1940s the congregation relocated to the synagogue’s basement chapel and the grand main chapel was closed.

After decades of devastating deterioration, a 20-year restoration began in 1986, costing almost $20 million. Today, it’s one of just two synagogues in New York City to be declared a National Historic Landmark. 

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Students were particularly moved by the small human details, such as feeling the dents in the floorboards caused by decades of shuckling - the ritual swaying of worshippers during Jewish prayer – and hearing how women worshippers spearheaded the 1902 kosher meat boycott of New York.

Jewish women organised protests across the neighbourhood in response to a co-ordinated increase in price of kosher meat and on 17 May, during Shabbat Torah services, women worshippers interrupted prayers at Eldridge Street Synagogue with a call to support the boycott. 

Before that day, women were merely observers in the synagogue – seen and not heard – but three weeks into the boycott the price of kosher meat was lowered.

Charlie Entwistle, a 20-yer-old student from Upper Harbledown near Canterbury, said: “Judaism isn’t something I was very familiar with before, so I feel like I’ve learned a lot by coming here today and hearing the intriguing history behind the synagogue.”

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21-year-old Charlie Park, from Wolverhampton, said: “I didn’t realise how much history there would be here. I really like how the synagogue gave people the freedom to escape.”

This was one of many academic and cultural activities the group has experienced during #DMUglobal’s latest mass trip to the Big Apple, consisting of 1,000 students and staff.

Earlier in the day they visited the World Trade Center and 9/11 memorial. Charlie Entwistle added: “It takes a lot to move me, but I couldn’t help getting teary. The fact that something like this could happen in modern history to one of the world’s strongest nations is really incredible.”

For Charlie Park, a personal highlight was going to The Stonewall Inn, the site of the1969 riots which are considered to be the most important event leading to the gay liberation movement in the United States and beyond.

He said: “You don’t get taught gay history at school, you have to learn it yourself. Getting to see where the movement that made things better for my generation got started was really emotional.”

Callum Christie, a 20-year-old student from Leighton Buzzard, said: “#DMUglobal has been really good to me, as I got to go to Berlin in my first year too. The thing I love most about these trips is that they pack a lot into a short space of time.”

Posted on Wednesday 9th January 2019

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