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protection from the incursion of an inappropriate condominum tower at the Shearith Israel Synagogue site.

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Upholders of Tradition?

Congregation Shearith Israel is the first Jewish congregation in North America, founded in 1654, and was the only Jewish Congregation in New York City until 1825. The Congregation web site notes that "Three of our members were among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. Many of the congregants served the cause of the American Revolution." Now, in 2007, the Congregation argues that because of this tradition, the Board of Standards and Appeals should waive the application of New York City Zoning Law because of the history and traditions of the Congregation.

As discussed below, the 2007 Trustees are ignoring the intention of earlier Trustees of the Congregation as well as Jewish Law. The Trustees are applying for a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals, to permit the Trustees to exceed the height and depth permitted by the zoning laws. The proposed building will tower over the landmarked Synagogue, not because space and programmatic needs of the Congregation, but solely to permit the construction of extra floors of income generating condominiums. Simply put, the Trustees are ignoring Jewish Law principles and also ignoring the intent of the initial Trustees for one reason alone, financial gain.

The present day Congregation is quite proud, and rightly so, of its history. In its filings and testimony before community board and City agencies, the Congregation is explicit and outspoken as to its history and tradition. Indeed, the Trustees argue that their devotion to tradition justifies the waiver of the zoning laws. The application to the Board of Standards and Appeals contains several pages devoted to this subject, reminding reader that members of the congregation included "officers and financiers of the Revolutionary War and founders of Columbia University, the New York Stock Exchange and Mount Sinai Montefiore Hospitals." By the Trustees own admission, the Congregation is a congregation of very old money, yet it is asking for a variance so as to finance a community house for the Congregation, relieving wealthy Congregants of a financial burden.

The application statement filed by the Congregation with the Board of Standards and Appeals is extraordinary. After a lengthy discourse about the history and traditions of the Congregation and Jewish Law and customs, the Congregation concludes:

All of the requests for relief presented in this Application are directed toward alleviating the hardships caused to that mission by the literal application of the cited provisions of the Zoning Resolution.

"That mission" of course means the traditions etc. of the Congregation. The Congregation's "hardship" is the hardship that the Congregation cannot use non-zoning compliant condominiums to provide a free community house to the Congregation. What this sentence really says is "We deserve an exemption from zoning law because we are who we are." The concept is that the Trustees are holding up a grand tradition.

The Application states that " This physical and cultural history of the Synagogue is an essential element of this Application. .. This stewardship is undeniably linked to the religious, cultural and educational mission of CSI. It informs every decision regarding the use and development of it property....CSI holds any effort to alter the Synagogue to be a violation of that obligation and antithetical to its mission"

But wait - is it really true that the current Trustees of the Congregation are upholding the traditions of the Trustees who constructed the Synagogue in 1896 -1897? It seems not.

The 1896 trustees had commissioned an extraordinary building, designed by Arnold Brunner with Numidian and Sienna Marble, and Louis Tiffany stained glass windows. This was a luxurious building, well representing the established members of the Congregation.

The 1896 Trustees were interested in upholding a important Jewish law to protect the new Synagogue - the prohibition in Jewish Law against constructing a building next to and taller than a Synagogue. Under Jewish Law, a synagogue is to be the tallest building in a town, for example as cited by R. Colon citing Shabbos 11. Certainly, in urban areas, this rule could not be followed, but, certainly, a congregation would violate these principles by constructing a tall building next to its own sanctuary, especially for the sole purpose of making money when the Congregation is already so well endowed.

In 1897, to protect the new Synagogue and to comply with this important principle of Jewish law, the Trustees took two steps. First, to the south of the new Synagogue, they constructed a 4 story parsonage, lower than the synagogue. Next, the Trustees owned the land to the west of the new Synagogue, the present location of the construction site for the proposed building. The trustees in 1897 sold the land - 8 West 70th - to a private party, placing an important restriction - any building would be a single family home, protecting the Synagogue from a tall apartment building. Then, in 1942, the owners of 8 West wanted to use the property for a multi-family building. For a sum of $1000, the 1942 Trustees removed the restriction, but imposed a new restriction - as long as the Synagogue site was used for religious purposes, the owners of 8 West would not build a building taller than the synagogue and would not build a building that covered the entire lot.

In 1949, the Trustees then repurchased 8 West 70th Street and in 1954 converted the building thereon to the existing community house. Now in 2007 the current trustees, clearly departing from Jewish law and the expressed intent of the earlier Trustees, wish to construct a building that is taller than the beautiful synagogue and even cover the entire lot. The great grandparents of these 2007 Trustees most certainly would be disappointed to what is being done in the name of tradition.


The recorded documents include the following:

February 4, 1897 at Liber 4, section 4 of conveyances at page 313. The document are restrictive covenant for the benefit of 6 West 70th Street (the Synagogue) over the property at 8 West 70th Street (the present community house).

The original handwritten document is here... Although difficult to read, the text of the 1897 covenants is recited in the 1942 agreement (here) referred to below.

These 1897 covenant restricted any building on 8 West to a single family residence as long as 6 West was used for religious purposes: “so long as  building or buildings … on 6 West 70th Street .. are used for religious purposes.”

Another 1897 covenant in the same document created a separation zone of 5 feet between the Synagogue and the single family residence that could be built at 8 West 70th.

“The parties of the second part further covenant, for themselves, their heirs or assigns, to and with the party of the first part [the Congregation], it successors,or assignes, that so long as the building or buildings, now or hereafter to be erected on premises immediately adjoining the above described premises on the east [i.e. the current Synagogue], are used for religious purposes, the space of 5 feet by 30 feet in depth .. shall forever bye kept open and unbuilt upon …”

Effectively, the 1897 Trustees were limiting the height of and building to be built on 8 West 70th street, and also provided a physical separation from the Synagogue building.

May 22, 1941 at Liber 4112 cp, 178.

In 1941, according to this document, the owner of 8 West 70th Street desired:

"to permit the one family dwelling now erected upon the above described property owned by them, to be altered, or a new building upon said property to be erected, for use and occupancy as a dwelling for more than one family unit."

Accordingly, the 8 West owners paid the Trustees of the Congregation the sum of $1000 (paragraph 1) and the 1897 covenants were modified.

First, in paragraph 1, a single or multi-family residence was authorized, “so long as  building … on 6 West 70th Street .. are used for religious purposes.”

Then, again so long as the 6 West site was use for religious purposes, the 8 West owner agreed:

Neither such altered building nor any such new building shall have a height, measured to the roof, greater than the present height, measured to the roof, of the present building on said property [8 West 70th Street] …It is hereby agreed that the greatest height, measured to the roof, of the present building is 61 feet 6 ½ inches.

There was also a depth restriction in 2(b).

Thus, the 1941 Trustee were emphatically clear that any adjoining building on 8 West could be no higher than the Synagogue, and further limited the depth of any building on the site.

Subsequently, in 1949, the Congregation acquired the 8 West Site. Now, in 2007, the Congregation Trustees intend to construct a building overshadowing the Synagogue building, in conflict with the intention of the 1897 and 1941 Trustees.