Our congregation began from simple beginnings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side when our parent congregations, Shaar Hashomayim and Ahawath Chesed, were founded in 1839 and 1846 respectively by German-speaking immigrants. By 1870, the membership of Ahawath Chesed prospered, grew and moved uptown to Lexington Avenue at 55th Street.
With amazing courage and vision, the 140 families of Ahawath Chesed commissioned Henry Fernbach, New York’s first prominent Jewish architect, to design its synagogue, which seated more than 1,400 individuals. At its dedication in 1872, Rabbi Adolph Heubsch described the building as “a house of worship in evidence of the high degree of development only possible under a condition of freedom.”
In 1898 Shaar Hashomayim merged with Ahawath Chesed and became known as Central Synagogue in 1917. Though tempted to continue its move northward, in 1913 the Board of Trustees decided to stay on our present site.
Central Synagogue, designated a New York City Landmark in 1966 and a National Historic Landmark in 1975, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in New York City and one of the leading Reform congregations in the country.
Currently, Central Synagogue’s thriving community comprises more than 2,000 member families with more than 200 others actively engaged in worship and social justice work, while awaiting full membership. How do I become a member of Central Synagogue?
Our history includes devastation as well as celebration. On August 28, 1998, just as the congregation was preparing for Shabbat worship, a fire was accidentally ignited as workers were concluding a three-year renovation of the building. We are grateful that there were no serious injuries, but our synagogue space was devastated. The roof and its supports were destroyed and several support beams fell, penetrating the sanctuary floor. The choir loft and organ were completely destroyed. Our prayer books also were severely damaged and, as our congregation mourned, we buried them the following week in our cemetery.
Miraculously, the ark was spared because it was under a separate roof. The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) remained in place as did the mezuzah on the center door where it remained throughout the reconstruction. Most of our ritual objects, including the Torah scrolls, had been previously removed from the building because of the prior renovation. Fortunately, we were able to rescue our Holocaust Torah scroll, which had been dedicated in memory of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. We are grateful to the New York City Fire Department, especially the 8th Battalion, for saving the skeleton of our building, the exterior walls, all the windows on the main and gallery floors, and the rose window on the east wall over the choir loft.
From the very beginning, former Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, Cardinal O’Connor and then Cardinal Egan of the Archdiocese of New York, local clergy, and Jewish community leaders stood by Central Synagogue as we arose from the ashes. We also received support from religious and community leaders from around the world and were visited by many, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister of Israel.
On Sunday, September 9, 2001, the newly restored Central Synagogue was reconsecrated. Hundreds gathered at the steps of our Main Sanctuary to be a part of the re-dedication. Two days later, our city was forever changed by the terror attacks on downtown Manhattan.
On Friday, September 9, 2011, Central Synagogue celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Sanctuary’s re-dedication, while also commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks during our Shabbat evening service.