Michael Weinstein, a longtime Long Island resident and financial adviser, never intended to publish a photo book of New York City synagogues. But in 2015 he started making regular treks to Brooklyn to visit Holocaust survivors after joining two chesed programs – Mitzvah Man and Connect2 – and became fascinated by the many synagogues he saw. He began photographing them and soon wondered if his labor could yield a book.
“I discovered,” he told The Jewish Press, “that there were plenty of history books of synagogues that no longer existed and synagogues that were turned into churches, but not one book of existing synagogues.”
His initial plan was to photograph 100 synagogues in Brooklyn, but he changed his mind after attending shul one Shabbos. “I was at a Shabbat service and someone pledged ‘ten times chai.’ I immediately knew ten times chai was 180, and I started thinking, ‘I wonder if I could get 180 synagogues in New York City if I went beyond Brooklyn.’ ”
He did. “Believe it or not,” he said, “the numbers of Orthodox existing synagogues was more or less 35 in Manhattan and more or less 35 in Queens. That alone made up 170, and the last two places I went were the Bronx and Staten Island” – where he found five synagogues in each borough.
The end result is Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City (Brown Books Publishing Group), a coffee table-sized book with 613 color photos of New York shuls.
The Jewish Press: How did you decide which shuls to include in your book?
Weinstein: With a few exceptions, I really did not count shtiebels, yeshivas, or shuls in a storefront or someone’s home. My goal was to include the largest and most established Orthodox synagogues, and there are about 200 of these in New York. Some of them go very far back. For example, Shearith Israel of the Upper West Side of Manhattan claims to have been founded in 1654.
You said you made a few exceptions to your rule. Can you give an example?
One that comes to mind is Congregation Chassidei Breslov, which is on 16th Avenue in Boro Park. It’s not a large synagogue, but one of the reasons I included it is because I personally started learning the teachings of Rabbi Nachamn of Breslov seven years ago after a trip to Israel for my daughter’s bat mitzvah.
I davened at the grave of the Arizal in Tzfat and as I was coming out of the cemetery, somebody gave me a card. I didn’t know who it was and it turned out to be Breslover. I said, “What is Breslov? Who is Rabbi Nachman?” I went to Hebrew school in a Conservative shul for five years, and no one ever mentioned his name.
That encounter in Tzfat opened up a tremendous path for me. I took a personal step up and started keeping kosher in and out of the house. So I included the Breslov shul in the book to honor Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
What are some of the most beautiful synagogues you photographed for this book?
Ahaba Ve Ahva is one of them. It’s on Ocean Parkway and was originally founded in Cairo, Egypt, in the 1920s and reestablished in Brooklyn in the 1970s. It is a remarkably beautiful shul. It has a marble entranceway, a spiral staircase, and beautiful stained glass throughout the synagogue.
Another one that really impressed me was the Bialystoker Synagogue, which is one of the last large remaining synagogues on the Lower East Side. Of course near the Bialystoker Synagogue is the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which is another beautiful shul.
A more recent beautiful synagogue is Bet-El on Union Turnpike in Queens. The outside is beautifully done; with its Jerusalem stone, you almost feel like you’re standing in Jerusalem. But the inside is even more beautiful, and between the stained glass and the décor, it’s probably the nicest synagogue in Queens.
Were there any surprises for you in producing this book?
The only surprise was in Williamsburg. When I went there, I had half the book done, so I had a binder with photos, and a couple of guys asked me, “Why are you including shuls with a Jewish star?” I quickly learned that there are some sects in Williamsburg that unfortunately do not recognize the state of Israel. So that sort of surprised me – this questioning of the Star of David.
Another interesting thing that happened was, along the way, there were Torahs stolen from the Avenue O Synagogue in Midwood, Brooklyn. I had been there the week before taking photos, so when I heard the news, I prayed that 1) someone would return the Torahs and 2) I wouldn’t be questioned by the police since I knew they were watching surveillance footage of me snapping pictures. As it turned out, the Torahs were safely returned and that was the end of the story.
Considering that you did not grow up Orthodox, what made you decide to only include Orthodox shuls in this book?
I had to draw the line somewhere, and when I first started doing the book I was in Brooklyn, where most of the synagogues are Orthodox. Even synagogues that were Conservative 50 or 100 years ago have turned Orthodox because of the changing population.
Are you a professionally trained photographer?
I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, but I have zero professional training. Last year I went to Jerusalem with an Aish HaTorah group and heard something in a video from Aish HaTorah’s founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg. He was quoting Pirkei Avot and basically said, “Look around, see what needs to be done and if nobody’s going to do it, you have to do it.” So I looked around and said, “Someone should publish a photo book of New York shuls, and if it’s not going to be anybody else, I’m going to do it.”
What do you hope people will get out of the book?
Unfortunately, some of these synagogues are not going to be around in future years; some are hanging by a thread. It’s extremely expensive to maintain a large synagogue, so what I hope people get out of it is a sense of pride of where they may currently daven and where maybe their parents or grandparents davened.
I also hope that people buy the book for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and pass on the glorious tradition of these beautiful places. I myself was in a synagogue in Flatbush where I found a plaque of my great-grandmother from 1932. To walk into that synagogue and stop and think for a minute that my great-grandparents davened in this place in the 1930s was very meaningful for me.
Everybody is caught up in the day-to-day life of New York City – subways and buses and trying to find a parking spot. When I showed people my pictures, I was really struck by how many of them said, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize this shul was five blocks away. I’ve never been there.”
So I hope when people see this book, it will give them a glimpse of the beautiful places they’re perhaps missing out on. Maybe they’ll find these places, pray in them, support them, become members, and, most of all, remember them and be proud.