LPC Approves Meseritz Plan Despite Concern From Congregants

synagogue, East VillageMichelle Rick

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved a proposal to add a penthouse to Anshei Meseritz Synagogue, but current and former congregation members remain steadfastly opposed to the plan.

At a hearing today, architect Joseph Lombardi presented a proposal that would preserve the facade of the East Sixth Street synagogue, conserve its stained glass, and add an extra story to the building.

Though the changes discussed today were cosmetic, they’re rooted in a deeper shakeup: the governing board of Congregation Adas Le Israel Anshei Mesertiz recently leased the synagogue to East River Partners, resurrecting a contentious scheme to develop the building into condos. Construction plans obtained by The Local reveal that the congregation would move to the basement of the building.

At today’s meeting Robert Rand, the synagogue’s president, insisted its congregants and board of directors “overwhelmingly support the plan” for the building.

But four current and former members of the congregation, including board member Ido Nissani, are unhappy with terms of the lease. Three of them complained to The Local that too few members were represented in the decision-making process. A person affiliated with the synagogue who did not want to be named said the space they were promised by Rabbi Pesach Ackerman didn’t match up with the current architectural plans.

Last week Matt Malina, a Lower East Side resident who is not a member of the synagogue but considers himself a concerned party, told The Local that the former president of the synagogue, whom Mr. Malina claimed was dismissed for malfeasance, was a signatory of the lease, rendering it invalid. At Mr. Malina’s behest, the former congregants met with a lawyer earlier this week to discuss their concerns; the lawyer told them there was nothing he could do, Mr. Malina said.

At today’s hearing, Mr. Malina told the commission that he had filed papers with the Attorney General regarding the potential lawsuit, and asked them to wait to make a decision until the Attorney General’s office had responded.

Instead the commission approved the proposal after hearing testimony from Community Board 3, the Historic Districts Council and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The only objections were to the color and the size of the rooftop addition, which will be set 12 feet back from the front of the building and will rise eight feet from the existing roof in the front of the building and 11 feet in the back.

Amanda Davis of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation asked that the rooftop addition be of a darker color, so as to “visually distinguish the historic building from the addition.”

While Community Board 3 passed a resolution supporting the proposed exterior renovations, Carolyn Ratcliffe, the chair of the Landmarks subcommittee, expressed continued concern over the future use of the interior of the building, which is not under the purview of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Michael Goldblum, a member of the commission, called the situation “regrettable.”

Last week, Michelle Wolinsky, whose grandparents were married in the synagogue, told The Local why she opposed the current plan for it. “They are going to rip out the guts,” she said, adding that the building was “more than just the facade.”

Ms. Wolinsky noted that most members only attend synagogue on High Holy Days, when the services are held in a space on the main floor, which features the original tenement architecture and “beautiful judaic fixtures.” She thinks that when services move to the basement, the synagogue will lose one of its main attractions.

“For the space that is going to be left over, the idea that this can be a synagogue is delusional,” said a person affiliated with the synagogue who did not want to be named. “There wouldn’t be adequate room; it’s not going to be pleasant.”

When Meseritz was established in 1888, it was one of many “landsmanshaft” synagogues in the Lower East Side. The founding members named the congregation after their home village in Poland, and the synagogue was a popular gathering place for immigrants to meet other people who hailed from the same region.

The synagogue’s current leaders, including Mr. Nissani, were among the most vocal opponents of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District that, last year, made the building a landmark. “Unfortunately, the LPC and the GVSHP want to preserve only dead stones,” Mr. Nissani wrote in 2011, referring to the entities that supported the plan today. “On the contrary, we concentrate on keeping alive the stones along with the community: the greater community of the East Village.”

Congregation Anshei Meseritz is the last operating tenement synagogue in the East Village. “It reflects the whole way of life and immigrant experience that is quickly diminishing,” the source affiliated with the synagogue told The Local.

Editor’s note: This post was revised after publication. The original version mistakenly revealed the name of a person affiliated with the synagogue who had requested anonymity. That name has since been redacted. 

Correction, April 16, 2013: This post has been revised to correct an error. The original version included Ido Nissani among the current and former members of the congregation who said that two few members were represented in the decision-making process and the space they were promised by Rabbi Pesach Ackerman didn’t match up with the current architectural plans. Mr. Nissani did not actually speak to The Local about these matters, and only one person said the space was promised by Rabbi Ackerman.