A Story ‘Central’ To NY Jewish Life


How do you get to Carnegie Hall if you’re a synagogue? Have 180 years of history under your belt.

With great joy, fanfare, self-described chutzpah and optimism for the Jewish future, Central Synagogue is celebrating its 180th anniversary with a theatrical concert next week at the iconic concert venue.

“Our history shapes who we are,” Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the congregation’s senior rabbi, who is the 13th spiritual leader in that role over 180 years, tells The Jewish Week in an interview.

“Our congregation has thrived because we celebrate why people remain Jewish in a joyful way. It’s about finding meaning and purpose, rootedness and a future.”

The narration of the Nov. 12 event, “Our Future is Central,” covers five historical “chapters.” In the early 1800s, immigrants from Germany fled famine and anti-Semitism, settled on New York’s Lower East Side, and, in small groups, founded synagogues, including the two parent congregations: Ahawath Chesed at 69 Ludlow St. (founded 1846) and Shaar Hashomayim at 122 Street (founded in 1839).

In 1870, with “much chutzpah,” as Rabbi Buchdahl explains, and a vision of its future, Ahawath Chesed, with about 140 members, built a grand synagogue uptown seating more than 1,400 people. The new synagogue, designed by architect Henry Fernbach, was dedicated in 1872, and soon after merged with Shaar Hashomayim. The congregation became known as Central Synagogue in 1917 — and the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

Synagogue minutes in German that go back to the early days describe how after Lincoln was assassinated, the congregation honored him by saying his name daily through the shloshim period, 30 days following his death. In 1898, the congregation shifted from German to English for its prayer services and records.

Subsequent chapters in the Carnegie Hall production will include the congregation’s embrace of the Reform movement and more recent history, including a devastating 1998 fire.

The music is an eclectic mix, including Broadway, pop, liturgical, Carlebach and original pieces. Featured are Rabbi Buchdahl, Cantor Daniel Mutlu and Cantor Julia Cadrain along with four professional actors.

“It’s an emotional and powerful story — not just the story of Central Synagogue, but the story of Jewish life in New York,” Rabbi Buchdahl says. “It’s all of our story.”