The Bialystoker Synagogue, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is the oldest surviving building in New York City that is actively used as a synagogue. Originally, the building was constructed as the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church in 1826, but in 1905, it was purchased for use as a synagogue. In April 1996, it was designated as a New York City Landmark, and in April 1972, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the Bialystoker Synagogue congregation still gathers in this historic building.
Backstory and Context
The building that would eventually become the Bialystoker Synagogue was built in 1826 as the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Not much is known about the church’s original congregation. The Synagogue’s congregation was formed in 1865 as the Chevrah Anshei Chesed of Bialystok. Initially, the congregation met on Hester Street, where the congregation remained for several years. Over the years, the congregation grew in size, and when a group of immigrants came to the area in early 1905, it became clear that there was not enough room for the congregation. In May of that same year, the congregation purchased the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church building and moved out of the smaller location.
In order to purchase the synagogue, the Bialystoker Synagogue had to take out substantial loans and a mortgage, which it slowly began to pay off. In the meantime, the congregation grew, and the synagogue prospered. A decision was made to remodel the interior of the synagogue during the Great Depression in order to inspire the community. Almost fifty years after the purchase of the building, the Bialystoker Synagogue finally paid off their mortgage in May of 1953, and the congregation celebrated with a ceremonial burning of the mortgage. On April 19, 1966, the building was designated a New York City Landmark, and on April 26, 1972, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the Bialystoker Synagogue still has an active congregation.