Rav Shlomo Friedlander, z”l, the fourth Lisker Rav, had a vision. As he saw his Bronx congregation dwindle in the 1960′s subject to forces beyond his control, he knew he would have to eventually move to a new shul. Rabbi Friedlander, had already once salvaged his chassidic dynasty from Olaszliszka, Hungary after the Holocaust and had built a new community in the Bronx. Now, he patiently waited until the last congregant left the neighborhood and then, in 1976, relocated his shul to 163 East 69th Street.
He was met with some hostility in his new neighborhood. (The sight of chassidim on East 69th Street was not common) and considerable incredulity from fellow chassidim in Brooklyn
who asked how he could move to such a non-Jewish neighborhood. Nevertheless, he persisted in his burning vision, strengthened by the support of his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Through their tireless efforts the fundamental concepts of Bikur Cholim, Hachnossas Orchim and Hatzalah would soon flourish on the Upper East Side by means of the little shul he founded.
Rav Shlomo built this island of chesed by physically transferring a piece of the Bronx to East
69th Street, artifact by artifact. With the help of his son-in-law, Rav Abraham, he succeeded in creating an authentic Hungarian chassidic shul filled with the memories of the Old World. First, they started with the things they could save from their own shul and then searched the Bronx for the discarded remnants of closed shuls, often finding them on the streets or in junkyards. Piece by piece, the interior of the former carriage house became a real shul.
When approaching the shul, one is immediately struck by the massive bronze entrance doors, a modern exception to the eclectic interior. The doors, designed by Rav Abraham and a
curator at the Jewish Museum in 1979, are an elegant rendering of the Ten Commandments in
modern, Hebrew characters alef through yud. Entering the sanctuary light and color overwhelm the walls of practical wood paneling. The women’s section is separated by a wall of six large, stained glass windows. Two central windows on the long wall are from the original Lisker shul on 182nd Street and the Grand Concourse, and the others have been collected from other Bronx sanctuaries. Two ornate glass chandeliers illuminate the inside of the women’s section and thereby set the tone for the majority of the synagogue light fixtures, expressing the traditional Hungarian weakness for this particular Middle European mode of decoration.
The men’s section is lit by at least eight chandeliers each radiating a pure white light. The brass bimah from the original shul, formed by an open grillwork of six Magen Davids, is accented
at each corner by a stanchion of five lights, two of them capped by a cone shaped miniature
chandeliers. An ornate blaze of shimmering glass lights the bimah from above, evoking the
atmosphere of a grand ballroom. Dozens of crystals descend in long loops to a ring of alternating sconces. Beneath the brass ring of sconces crystal slivers form an inverted bowl to refract the light all around this extravagant chandelier from the Grand Concourse. The Torah was never so well honored.
Rav Shlomo’s artistic sensibility found its fullest expression in the design of the ark. The polished and decorated urn of the ner tamid (eternal light) set off to the right side, was brought
from the original synagogue in the Bronx. The beautiful Art Deco bronze ark doors have a
soothing floral motif that beckons to the richness of Torah found within. They were found in the East Bronx. Surmounting the ark are two carved wooden lions that present the Luchos (Ten Commandments) crowned, echoing the legend over the doors, Holy To Hashem.
The sanctuary is a paradoxical combination of visual ostentation, Middle European decoration and the utmost humility. The seating is plain, the walls simply paneled and yet the lighting above glistens. Initially, Rav Shlomo had his office behind the sanctuary in a modest add-on room. But creativity was constantly brewing here and Rav Abraham, his son-in-law, conceived of installing a large skylight that could be cranked open to make the space into a
community Succah. To decorate this succah he commissioned an Italian glass chandelier from
Murano, Venice. It hangs in all its excessive Italian glory, clusters of white and purple glass
grapes surrounded by green and red glass leaves. The succah stands at the ready all year round, constantly reminding those who sit and study under the lovely skylight that the holiday is forever approaching.
The room is decorated with paintings and posters of various Torah personalities, not the least of which is the Akeidas Yitzhak by Morris Katz. Normally this artist’s works are notable only
for their carefree and speedy execution, but this painting is a welcome exception. Under an
enormous sky the tallis-clad patriarch Abraham stands in profile, ready to slaughter his son. Isaac is lies stiffly face up, covered only by another Tallis. And out of a bush on the left, a classical angel with a brilliant red robe orders Abraham to stop. In this frozen moment, the balanced tension between the human and the Divine will, with Isaac acting as a rigid fulcrum, casts this narrative into excruciating relief. In the lowest register, four figures remind us of the Succah holiday. The juxtaposition of Succoth and the Akeidah (normally associated with Rosh Hashanah) reminds us our dependence on the merits of our forefathers when we pray for the mercy of the Ribbono shel Olam.
The history of the Lisker Congregation stretches back to 1830 in Olaszliszka, Hungary. The founder of the Lisker chassidus was Rabbi Zvi-Hersh Friedman (1808-1874), a great scholar
and baal chesed. He nurtured the early congregation involved in wine production and trade in the area famous for the Tokay Hungarian wines. The original synagogue was a grand affair, able to seat 500 people. It survived until it was destroyed, along with the majority of its congregation, in the Holocaust. The third Lisker Rebbe, Zvi-Hirsh Friedlander, refused to flee the murderous onslaught and abandon his congregation. He told his son, Rav Shlomo, “I know you will be saved and carry on as a designate to me from now on.” Rav Shlomo survived and moved the congregation to the Bronx after the War.
When Rav Shlomo moved to East 69th Street, he recreated much more than a Hungarian shul. He established the Hershel Lisker Bikur Cholim to visit the sick and provide lodging and food
to those visiting patients in the many neighborhood hospitals. They have provided, to the Jewish sick and their friends and relatives for over 25 years, a desperately needed island of Jewish hospitality and care, along with a warm and friendly shul in which to daven. Three rooms upstairs from the shul accommodate visitors. The current Lisker Rebbe, Zvi-Hersh Friedlander, continues the tradition established by his grandfather, Rav Shlomo; his father, Rav Abraham; and his mother, Rebbetzin Judith Friedlander.
All of them were or are official chaplains at the neighborhood hospitals including Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York Hospital, Lenox Hill Hospital and The Hospital for
Special Surgery, tirelessly serving the sick and needy. In addition the Lisker Congregation has
attempted to perpetuate another mitzva they championed in the Bronx. The Bronx shul had a
mikveh in the basement and they have endeavored to create a mikveh in the current building.
Unfortunately it remains unfinished due to lack of adequate funding. They are currently looking
for a sponsor for this praiseworthy and essential project.
The Lisker Congregation has come a long way from the heart of Hungary, a sojourn in the
Bronx and finally to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, continually serving the Jewish people.
They seem to understand, as evidenced by their lovely synagogue, glittering with chandeliers and stained glass, and continual community service, that the needs of body and soul, the eye and the heart, are equally demanding and once fulfilled, equally nourishing.Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at richardmcbee.com