Ellen Levitt is one of the most interesting detectives in the city. Her job as a writer is finding lost synagogues. The latest book about her sleuthing in Manhattan, Staten Island and Governeur’s Island is now available for purchase.
The Last Synagogues of Manhattan is a densely packed treasure trove of architectural observations, naming practices and chronologies of the 90+ synagogues that live on as churches, art galleries, restaurants, private residences and the like. Although she gives ample discussion of the buildings of worship that have been destroyed, her book is focused upon the “existing buildings that were once synagogues, yeshivas or other Jewish institutions but are no longer used as such.”
I used the book to track down some of the history of the legendary Pentecostal church, La Sinagoga, on 125th Street in East Harlem.
The church’s history goes back to a Puerto Rican Pentecostal group that started meeting in East Harlem in the 1930s. John and Isabel Lugo, came to minister in the group before going onto Puerto Rico to help found Puerto Rican Pentecostalism.
In 1951 Pastor Abelardo Berrios, his wife and seven or so others opened the Latin American Pentecostal Church of God in the basement of a building that had served as a synagogue at 65 East 109th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Consequently, the church grew to several hundred members, bought the building and became popularly known as La Sinagoga.
I discovered that the 109th Street building occupied at one time by La Sinagoga had a more complicated religious history than I had initially thought. It was originally erected in 1881 as the Methodist Episcopal Church of the Savior, which was founded in 1870 as the South Harlem Methodist Episcopal Church. Preaching services were begun in 1862 in a home near 110th Street, and the church occupied sites at 110th Street and 111th Street. Before it moved to 109th Street, it was known as the 111th Street Methodist Church. After the Methodist church moved to another location in 1905, the building was occupied successively by two synagogues. The church closed down in 1956.
Noel Serrano, who grew up as a child in La Sinagoga, says that first, Beth Ha-Knesset Ha Gadal (meaning “The House of the Great Assembly”) moved into the building. The name is similar to Beit Knesset HaGadol,a large, modern synagogue in Jerusalem with front gates that replicate the entrance into the original and second temples of the Biblical period. first and second temples. The congregation was founded in December 1896 and at the 109th Street building it had 50 men aged 37 or younger who were born in New York City. That’s an interesting development: an American-born only synagogue.
At some point Serrano says that Nachlath Svi (meaning “Inheritance of Israel”) occupied the 109th Street edifice until just before the church was founded.
Here is where Levitt comes in handy. She notes a synagogue with a similar name, Nachlath Zvi B’nai Israel Linoth Hazedek B’nai Menashe. This congregations was organized in 1897 and resided at 289 E. 4th Street. Around 1917 the congregation had a membership of 220 and seating for 500. Perhaps, the two synagogues with similar names are related in some way. Most congregants at a synagogue with a long name only use a shortened version and Svi is one possible transliteration of the Hebrew for “zvi.” Another transliteration used in a Jewish newspaper about the synagogue in 1913 was “Zevi.”
The two synagogues were organized about the same time. Levitt emailed, “maybe there is a connection between these two ‘Nachlath Zvi’ because the one in Harlem organized in 1896 and the East Village one originated in 1897.” The relationship is uncertain, but be assured that the lost synagogue detective is on the case!
Back in the 1950s, the fervor pitch for Puerto Rican independence that led to an attempted assassination of the President of the United States affected churches also. La Sinagoga was Grand Central for the debate among the churches. In 1957 Pastor Abelardo Berrios, his wife Carmen, and others created a new denomination, the Latin American Council of the Pentecostal Church of God, Inc., that declared its independence from a Puerto Rican association that was affiliated with the Assembly of God in the United States.
At about the same time the church faced another crisis from a different source, urban renewal. Although the policy is now discredited, city planners then believed that the ills of poverty could be solved with large scale urban renewal that tore down all the old buildings in the neighborhood in order to replace them with housing projects.
The city government struck a devastating blow against the church by taking and demolishing its building in one such urban renewal project. The church desperately looked for another large, affordable place. The city didn’t offer community groups any alternative space in the housing projects. Unlike many of the other community groups wiped out by urban renewal, the church finally found a usable site in the form of an unused movie theater at 115 East 125th Street.
After the church in 1959 moved to 125th Street, its nickname La Sinagoga and the chandeliers from the synagogue came with it. Although the current building has a sort of synagogue-ish feel with a square shape and large auditorium, the building was never a synagogue.
Down on Fourth Street, the synagogue building accommodated Nachlath Zvi, which shortened its long name to Congregation B’nai Israel, and another congregation B'nai Menasheh (Linath Ha-Zedek B'nai Menasheh). Its building has an unusual roof design. Levitt writes, “Resembling two sets of steps, it is reminiscent of the Hanseatic, Dutch style, fairly streamlined. You can see a more elaborate version of this on the West End Collegiate Church at 368 West End Avenue. On a few buildings in Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, at the crossroads of the Flatlands and East Flatbush neighborhoods, there a few brick buildings with this type of roof design (although they are not houses of worship). This style was popular many years ago but there has not been a revival of it.”
The religious presence at the 4th Street site continues with Iglesia Pentecostal Camino a Damasco. Its name means “Road to Damascus Pentecostal Church” and refers to the time when Rabbi Saul met Christ in his glory on the road to the ancient city Damascus. At that meeting the rabbi got a new name Paul and a new task, to spread the news about Rabbi Jesus’ death and resurrection to the Gentile world. From that time to today Jews and Christians have lived a symbiosis that at its best moments result in sharing buildings and ideas.
In the case of the 125th Street church the empathy between the two faiths is so close that the church chose to share its identity, La Sinagoga, with their Jewish predecessors.
For Jews and Christians The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan offers an amazing variety of little known historically shared facts in the city.
The Last Synagogues of Manhattan with numerous black and white photographs as well as her other volumes in paperback about her detective work on lost synagogues in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx can be ordered online from Avotayna or Amazon. If you want to give a quirky, intriguing present to people who love urban sleuthing, this is it.