60 Norfolk Street
This striking example of Gothic Revival architecture houses the oldest orthodox congregation of Russian Jews in the United States. The congregation was founded in 1852 and has occupied the building since 1885. Originally built in 1850 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church, it was sold to a Methodist congregation in 1860.
Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York City, led the congregation from 1888 to 1902. Born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1848, he studied in the Volozhin yeshiva where he was known as “Rav Yaakov Charif” because of his sharp mind.
He arrived in New York in 1888 to unite the orthodox Ashkenazi community under a single leadership. He helped to create a European-style orthodox community in New York, with a rabbinic leadership and a rabbinic court.
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003), an internationally recognized scholar, led the congregation for 50 years. His son-in-law, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, currently serves as Rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Through Rabbi Oshry’s remarkable efforts, it was designated a New York City landmark in 1967 after it was threatened with demolition. It was one of the first New York City synagogues to have received this honor and the first in Lower Manhattan.
Rabbi Oshry was the religious leader of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania during World War II, whose inhabitants created for posterity a hidden archive of the ghetto’s history. This archive is the core of a major exhibit and companion book at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Today, the Lower East Side and New York City preservation communities are working to restore the building to its original splendor. Holly Kaye, Founding Executive Director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, has taken a leadership role in fundraising and generating support for the preservation and restoration of Beth Hemedrash Hagadol.