Bialystoker Synagogue

Art & Culture | History

A Synagogue with a Unique History from the Underground Railroad to Bugsy Siegel

Bialystoker Synagogue Exterior Lower East Side

About Bialystoker Synagogue

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • The Bialystoker Synagogue is (by NYC standards) an ancient house of worship:
    • Built in 1826 as the Willet Street Episcopal Church and purchased by the Bialystoker congregation in 1905, it stands out as the oldest building used as a synagogue in all of NYC!
  • In fact, it’s so old, it practically rose out of the earth itself…
    • Well, kind of! It’s made of Manhattan Schist, the natural bedrock of Manhattan Island and is one of only 4 such buildings in NYC surviving from the Federal period!
  • And, given its age, it has been part of some incredible history, including, evidence suggests, the Underground Railroad!
    • A concealed door, in what is now the women’s gallery, opens to a narrow space with a ladder that leads to the attic.
    • Though there is no official documentation of this space as part of the Underground Railroad, local oral history has long said it was. It’s consistent with several other churches in New York City which were part of the Underground Railroad.
  • In more notorious history, one of the Synagogue’s congregants was the infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel!
    • In fact, you can find a memorial plaque to Bugsy at the Synagogue (he’s listed under his given name, “Benjamin Siegel.”)
    • You’ll notice he’s listed under his dad, who died 8 weeks before him…
      • The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, which offers tours of the building, calls this “honor among thieves.” Bugsy’s murderers gave him 8 weeks to mourn his father’s death before rubbing him out!
  • On a brighter note, you’ll notice that the synagogue is exceptionally beautiful.
    • It features a WPA mural on the ceiling, designed to bring hope and beauty to the community during that trying time. (More about WPA below.)
    • And it’s got some beautiful murals of Jerusalem on the walls.
  • Why Jerusalem murals you ask?
    • Well, if you don’t already know, synagogues are built so that the congregation faces Jerusalem when they pray.  In New York that would be facing East.  Because Bialystoker wasn’t originally built as a synagogue, it isn’t facing East, so the murals are in effect a way for them to still pray while facing Jerusalem!
  • And the most opulent of all: The Ark is plated in 18-karat gold. It was made in Bialystok, Poland, and reassembled here. (FYI for those not familiar with a synagogue, the Ark is an ornate cabinet that houses the sacred Torah scrolls which contain the text of the Hebrew bible.)

Carpe City Trivia

Besides the Ark, something else pretty awesome came from Bialystok

Bialystok, Poland, didn’t just give us the Ark, and the name of the Synagogue, it also gave us the name for, you guessed it, “Bialys,” those flattened almost-bagels you find nearby at Kossar’s. Bialys were invented in Bialystok and named for their hometown!

What is a WPA Mural?

WPA is an acronym for Works Progress Administration. Created as part of the New Deal, the WPA Federal Art Project provided employment for talented yet starving American artists during the trying times of the Depression.

By: Lucie Levine & Christi Scofield
Photography by:

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