In the shadows of Midtown Manhattan’s office towers and luxury condos, the Millinery Center Synagogue serves as a throwback to the neighborhood’s past as a hub of clothing manufacturing. On May 3, the board of this synagogue elected Richmond Hill resident Rabbi Avrohom Dov Kahn to lead it in a new direction as a center for outreach. “One of 26 Jews in the world either lives or works in Manhattan and this is an incredible location,” said Rabbi Kahn. “We’ve had Jews from all walks of life come to pray here.”
At the time of its founding in 1934, the Garment District of Manhattan was heavily Jewish, dominated by workshops that produced nearly a third of all clothing in the country. As its membership grew, it hired noted architect H. I. Friedman to transform a loft minyan into a synagogue. Following a delay as a result of World War II, it was completed in 1948, a last hurrah for art deco design. At the time, the area had three other “trade” synagogues: the Garment Center Congregation, the Actors’ Temple, and the Fur Center Synagogue.
In the following half century, the workshops and walk-ups of Sixth Avenue gave way to ever-taller skyscrapers, and the hum of manufacturing subsided in favor of offices, hotels, and high-end residences. The Fur Center Synagogue closed in 1995, and the Actors Temple went from Orthodox to egalitarian Conservative, leaving just two Orthodox Midtown synagogues with “trade” names on the map. Architecturally, the three-story building is a “holdout,” surrounded on three sides by a Marriott hotel tower built in 2004.
One constant in Midtown was the visible Jewish presence as children and grandchildren of garment workers commuted to their jobs as attorneys and accountants, among other professions. This daytime Jewish neighborhood is defined by its kosher lunch eateries on Broadway, and minyanim within offices and aging synagogues. Perhaps it was the lack of a permanent community that brought about the gradual neglect of the Millinery Center Synagogue, as junk piled within its narrow space, memorial plaques went missing, floor boards buckled, and bookshelves strained under the weight of decades-old siddurim. Tuvia Yamnik serves as its sentinel and fundraiser through the sale of “100 percent Egyptian cotton” blankets on a table by the entrance, but it was not enough to cover the costs of cleanup and repairs.
Another longtime congregant is Michael Remnick, who organized the first synagogue board meeting in a quarter century, which led to the selection of Yitzchak Friedman as the assistant rabbi. “He learned at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Har Etzion, so he can deal with Jews of every background,” said Rabbi Kahn. Organizing the shul’s revival in phases, the first phase was a cleanup that yielded 600 contractor bags of refuse, and another 56 cartons of sheimos. “Everything has been cleaned out, and the plumbing and heating now work,” said Remnick. “It was an exerted effort made by a small group.”
The selection of Rabbi Kahn signals a new mission for Millinery. In 1981, he founded Center for Return, which specialized in outreach on the campus of Queens College. Since 2004, it shifted its work to the streets of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan, through public events, lunch-and-learn sessions inside office buildings, and mentoring individuals. “Rabbi Kahn is committed. His whole life has been about Jews who want to learn more about Judaism,” said Remnick. “He will be successful.”
By Sergey Kadinsky