In the Jewish “shtetls,” or small towns, of Eastern Europe, synagogues were often built for members of a particular trade—the butchers’ synagogue, the bakers’ synagogue, the tailors’ synagogue. Although in the New World synagogues were mainly built to serve specific neighborhoods, not occupations, Manhattan had several trade-based houses of worship, some of them still active.
The Fur Center Synagogue at 230 West 29th St. between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, sadly, is a thing of the past, although its building still stands.
The congregation was formed in 1935 and it completed the two-story building on West 29th Street in 1965, according to an article published in the New York Times in December 1995 soon after the synagogue closed.
During the heyday of the fur district, the area stretched from 25th to 31st Streets, Sixth to Eighth Avenues, according to the Encyclopedia of New York City. Most of its denizens, both workers and owners, were Jewish.
Of those who attended the Fur Center Synagogue, some went to a daily minyan, or prayer service, while others went on the yahrzeit, or death anniversary, of loved ones, a time-old Jewish custom. At its peak, the congregation had about 700 members.
The Jewish atmosphere of the fur district was captured in another New York Times article, this one from September 1984, about the now-defunct Hershey’s kosher dairy restaurant at 167 W. 29th St. It describes the old-timers kibitzing over “bagels and bialys every morning of the week and chopped herring and kasha varnishkes every lunch hour.”
While eating, the Hershey’s regulars “set aside time for resolution of world problems, as well as for free psychiatric and legal counseling.” The article also describes how, by playing poker, they helped raise money for those in need – including, ominously, the synagogue itself.
By that time, the fur district was already changing. Many of the sons of the original workers, managers and manufacturers didn’t follow their fathers into the business, choosing professional careers instead. Greeks began to outnumber Jews in the fur trade, according to the Encyclopedia of New York City. Competition from foreign countries, synthetic furs and the animal-rights movement all took their toll.
Starting in the late ‘80s the Fur Center Synagogue saw a revival under the leadership of a new young rabbi, Joel Kenny. Joan Rosenfelt, a retired filmmaker and former congregant who now lives in Sullivan County, says Kenny had a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, but became an adherent of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. “Rabbi Kenny gave a lot of great classes and helped many people become more religious.
“He also brought in many new people. Some were artists who lived in lofts, some were from Penn South (a nearby co-op) and some came from Greenwich Village, like myself.” This writer visited the Fur Center Synagogue a few times in the early ‘90s, and can attest to its high level of energy. Rabbi Kenny’s wife, who was going for a doctorate in education at the time, also played an active part in the congregation, Rosenfelt said.
It should also be mentioned that the rabbi’s mother, Shirley Strum Kenny, was a university president -- first at Queens College, then at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook.
All of this new energy, however, couldn’t counteract the shrinking of the synagogue’s original base, the fur district, and the dying off or retirement of its original members. It was faced with bills it couldn’t pay. The building was sold to Subud, an international spiritual movement. Since 1996, it’s been the Subud Chelsea Center.
What of Rabbi Kenny? Tragically, he died of leukemia. In 2001, a professorship in cancer research in his name was endowed at SUNY Stony Brook.