The oldest surviving synagogue in Queens is about to get a major facelift. Work has begun on the restoration of the 100-year-old Tifereth Israel temple in Corona, thanks to a major grant from the city and the efforts of preservation groups around the city.
The temple was built in 1911 by a Jewish community that moved to Corona from the Lower East Side, according to a report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The late cosmetics mogul Esteé Lauder, the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, grew up in the neighborhood and used to worship at the temple. But by the 1970s, the Jewish population of the neighborhood had been replaced by immigrant communities from Latin America and Asia, and Tifereth Israel fell into a state of neglect and disrepair.
Over the last fifteen years, however, the temple has been used for serviced by Bukharian Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan, who were attracted to the building by its rich history.
“It’s the smell… something happens to you when you are inside. You can feel its holiness. You feel something very warm,” said congregation member Ester Khaimov. “Its spiritual life, its energy, it’s there, and it will never go.”
One day shortly after they Bukharian community took over the temple in 1997, Khaimov says they found a letter from the New York Landmarks Conservancy that had been thrown through the window, asking for a tour of the premises.
That visit kick-started a 14-year process leading to the current $1.4 million renovation, beginning with getting a Queensmark status from the Queens Historical Society, then a listing on the National Register for Historic Places and, in 2006, protected status from the city’s Landmark Commission.
The renovation will restore the original wood facade of the building, covered over with stucco since the 1920s, as well as the original corner towers topped with onion-shaped domes. The domes are common characteristic in early 20th century synagogues in the U.S., which combined Gothic and Moorish design elements.
Queen Borough President Helen Marshall secured the majority of the funding necessary for the restoration by bringing in a $1.1 million capital grant from the city. Another $300,000 was raised with help from private donors.
The community that worships at the temple got involved as well. Ester Khaimov went herself to dig through records at the Queens Department of Buildings in search of clues about the building’s history.
“In the Soviet Union, we had a very good education about blueprints, so I knew how to read and copy the original blueprints,” she boasted.
For Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, that collaboration with community is a big part of the project’s success.
“A whole group of diverse people came together to save a piece of Queens history and to have it in use for today and future generations,” said Breen.
The Tifereth Israel project is part of a larger Conservancy program geared towards saving the city’s disappearing sacred spaces, whose upkeep is being challenged by declining congregations.
“I don’t think you have to be religious at all to understand that these buildings talk about our history and have terrific community services that go beyond their congregations,” said Breen. “And in this case, the temple also stands as a visible reminder of the waves of immigration that through Queens and come through New York in general.