The little Hell’s Kitchen synagogue where old Broadway stars once worshipped

When it was founded in 1917 by local Jewish shop owners on West 47th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the congregation was known as Ezrath Israel.

Actors who frequented the Theater District and Times Square were decidedly not welcome. In the early 20th century, they were looked down upon for their supposed loose morals and the sometimes shady venues where they plied their trade.

But in the mid-1920s, a new synagogue for this small congregation had been constructed—a beige brick building that stood out thanks to its majestic stained glass center window.

A new rabbi also took the helm, and he “realized that he could increase the membership by welcoming actors from nearby Broadway,” wrote Joseph Berger in the New York Times in 2011. That rabbi, Bernard Birstein, reversed the previous no-performer policy, according to David Dunlop’s 2014 book, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

Drawing from all the theaters, cabarets, and nightclubs in this hopping part of Jazz Age Manhattan, the congregation attracted showbiz hopefuls as well as the already famous. Performers like Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny came to services, and Ezrath Israel became known as the Actors’ Temple.

“Some members and congregants, many of whom were born into poor, hardworking immigrant families, included Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Eddie Cantor, Burt Lahr, George Jessel, and countless other lesser-known actors, comedians, singers, playwrights, composers, musicians, writers, dancers and theatrical agents, along with sports figures like Sandy Koufax, Barney Ross, and Jake Pitler,” states the temple’s website.

Rabbi Bernard Birstein, center

Two of the Three Stooges were congregation members (Mo and Curly Howard, to be precise), and “Academy Award–winner Shelley Winters kept the High Holy Days in our sanctuary,” the website says.

One of the highlights of the congregation was an annual benefit to raise funds for the synagogue’s upkeep. On December 9, 1945, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about the “stars of stage, screen, and radio” who were scheduled to perform, including Danny Kaye, Jack Durant, and Joe E. Louis.

By the time of his death in 1959, Rabbi Birstein had boosted membership to 1,000, according to a 2002 New York Daily News article. But the number of congregants began to dwindle steadily through the decade—a trend experienced by other small synagogues in Manhattan’s unglamorous business districts, like the Garment District Synagogue and the Millinery Center Synagogue.

Today, the Actors’ Temple is still holding fundraisers and offers services for the high holidays. I’m not sure if any A-listers belong to the congregation, but members “take great pride in carrying on our Jewish show business tradition by being a place of acceptance, spirituality, creativity, and love,” per the website.

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10 Responses to “The little Hell’s Kitchen synagogue where old Broadway stars once worshipped”

  1. George Morgenweck Says:

    47th street is not in Hell’s Kitchen, the North boundry line of Hell’s Kitchen, is the center line of 42nd street.

    • Greg Says:

      That is quite mistaken. Indeed, 42nd is sometimes said to be the *southern* boundary.

      • George Morgenweck Says:

        I am 87 years old and lived in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen at 448 West 38th St from 1935 to 1950, my father who was born in 1909 and my grandfather who was born in 1873, both lived on 10th Ave. & 38th St. & they told me boundry lines of Hell’s Kitchen are as follows. The southern line is the centerline of 34th st, the northline is the centerline of 42nd st. the eastern line is the centerline of 8th Ave then west to the Hudson River. It was that way until the land developers started using the name Hell’s Kitchen to entice people to live in a tough area, then they started moving the boundry north and took it all the way to 59th st just to make money.

      • Greg Says:

        I respect the old wisdom and thank you for sharing it, but it has been a long time since anyone defined it that way. See this NY Times article from 1987.

        “Clinton” was the name of choice for real estate brokers in the 80s. The “Hell’s Kitchen” brand didn’t get fashionable until the 90s at least.

        Most of the famous “Westies” gang of Hell’s Kitchen in the 60s-80s lived north of 42nd.

      • George Morgenweck Says:

        I told you the facts, and I see that your going to have it your way no matter what.

    • Jerry Slaff Says:

      If not Hell’s Kitchen, perhaps Hell’s Rec Room?

  2. George Morgenweck Says:

    I’m talking about the years 20s’ 30s’ & 40s, the clinton area to my best memory was downtown around 23rd st.

  3. Sean Dougherty Says:

    When I lived in Manhattan just a few years ago my apartment at 52nd and Broadway was sometimes referred to as in Hell’s Kitchen, for what it’s worth.

  4. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Weekend, September 24-25, 2022 – A SMALL SYNAGOGUE THAT WELCOMES THEATRICAL AND OTHERS Says:

    […] The little Hell’s Kitchen synagogue where old […]

  5. Some Small Things Says:

    I went to a service at this synagogue maybe 15 years ago. It was me and I believe three other women. We each took turns reading.

    Thanks for the piece.

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