Where Gangsters Prayed: Stepping Inside the Bialystoker Synagogue on the LES [PHOTOS]

Posted on: March 25th, 2016 at 9:16 am by
This image has been archived or removed.

One small town in present day Poland spawned the bialy, the namesake behind “Bialystok and Bloom,” and an historic synagogue for its descendants here on the Lower East Side. More than a century in prayer, the Bialystoker congregation on Willet Street (i.e. Bialystoker Place) – a city certified landmark – survives as a living testament to the changing times and its contrasting stasis. As the neighborhood around it becomes encrusted in greenbacks, time stands still at the boxy former church.

The structure was initially conceived and built as a Methodist Episcopal church in 1826. Stone for its construction was apparently mined from a quarry on nearby Pitt Street. The Bialystoker Synagoguefirst organized in 1865 – later purchased the building in 1905 (for $150,000) as a means of accommodating the influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in Bialystok.

This image has been archived or removed.

Let’s take a step inside. The layers of history here are palpable. It’s an olfactory rush, the scent of old rug, books, and aging paint. Even though the sanctuary received a full restoration in 1988, much of the interior is intact. For instance, some of the stained glass windows date back to 1901 while still under church tutelage, and the three-story Aron Kodesh was originally hand-carved and schmeared with 18K gold leafing in Bialystok.

This image has been archived or removed.

Photo: Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy

There on the second-floor above the bima (stage) is a relief of the Western Wall in the Old City. The mural is a cure for those praying to face spiritual east toward Jerusalem, as is the custom in Judaism. Needed because the building orientation as church now has congregants facing west.

However, the jewel of the Bialystoker is actually the ceiling. Its Sistine Chapel, if you will. Painted up above is a colorful rendition of the zodiac (aka “Mazalot”) that rings an open sky meant to evoke prayer. Twelve months of pictographs including the unfortunate placement of the traif lobster. This artwork arrived in 1930 as part of a Works Progress Administration project (FDR’s New Deal agency during the Depression) to “provide a sense of hope and inspiration to the community.”

This image has been archived or removed.

Against the odds, this Shul persists and carries a strong base of some three hundred families, all while some of its local brethren struggle. Indeed, there are only five operational synagogues left on the Lower East Side. Down from approximately five hundred at the turn of last century (that number includes schteibls).

Of particular note, though, is that the Bialystoker counts among its current and former congregants several crooks. In more recent years, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his old pal and political crony William Rapfogel are members. Both went down in flames last year thanks to political corruption scandals.

Controversial landlord Baruch Singer is also a congregant, and member of the board.

This image has been archived or removed.

Possibly its most infamous congregant, though, was Jewish mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. In fact, there is still a memorial plaque for Siegel on premise. But check out the name above his own, Max Siegel. That’s Bugsy’s father. Also note the two-month difference between deaths. “That’s honor among thieves,” LESJC Lori Weissman tells us. You see, his enemies thought it ill prudent to murder the man while still mourning the death of his father. So, they gave him another nine weeks to live.

This image has been archived or removed.

Bugsy Siegel in 1928 mugshot


  • Local legend posits that the attic just off the women’s “gallery” was refuge for slaves as part of the Underground Railroad network.
  • The Bialystoker is one of only four early-19th century fieldstone religious buildings still standing from the late Federal period.
  • Landmark status achieved on April 19, 1966.

The Bialystoker Synagogue is open to the touring public. You can contact the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy to set up a private tour. Or, you can hit the Untapped Cities open tour on April 17. 

This gallery has been removed.

Recent Stories

Late Photographer Corky Lee Gets Mural Treatment on Doyers Street

There is a new tribute mural in Chinatown that honors the memory of beloved photographer Corky Lee. The nascent Chinatown Mural Project is behind the new artwork, which stretches along a 35-foot wall on Doyers Street, the nerve center of Chinatown. The mural is two-toned – blue and off-white – and meant to resemble “Ming” […]

One Year Later, ‘Fiore Escape’ COVID Sessions Still Captivate

One year after first captivating passersby at Essex and Grand Streets, the free fire escape concert series is back for another. Indeed, musician Jill Fiore will perform anew from the second floor of her Essex Street tenement (above Delancey Car Service). The next so-called “Fiore Escape” show is slated for October 15, as announced on […]

Parks Department Installs Fence at Allen Mall Bathhouse in Response to Nadja Rose Madder

The Parks Department is upping the ante on deterring a homeless artist from painting and gathering at the Allen Street Bathhouse. Earlier this week, the city began assembling an eight-foot chain-link enclosure to (partially) fence in the sidewalk plaza. It is on this spot that transgender artist Nadja Rose Madder has been transforming the brickwork […]

Extell Residents in Cherry Street Tower Bark Foul Over Abundance of Dogs Despite No Pet Policy

Residents of Extell’s “affordable tower” at 227 Cherry Street are barking foul over the proliferation of pitbulls, despite the no-pet policy. We are told by current tenants that leases contain a strict stipulation prohibiting pets in apartments, and that management (Wavecrest) seems deaf and/or slow to act about the apparent violations. By some estimates, there […]

Aggro Panhandler Hurls Brick at Pickle Guys Worker in Brutal Attack

An aggro panhandler outside Pickle Guys on Grand Street attacked an employee after he was asked to move away from the store entrance, cops said. The suspect had been aggressively begging at around 8:20am last Wednesday when the 63-year-old worker told him to disperse. That didn’t sit well; the pugilist picked up a nearby chair […]