Sutton Place Synagogue (Jewish Center for the United Nations) is a Conservative congregation founded in 1901. The roots of the synagogue extend back to the 1800’s when a small Jewish population in the eastern portion of Manhattan’s Midtown area – a neighborhood populated mainly by people of German and Irish ancestry – banded together as a community in order to perpetuate the Jewish life they had left behind in their mother countries.
The Early Years
Rabbi Meyer Freeman and eleven other members signed our Synagogue’s incorporation papers on November 6, 1901. Until 1906, this orthodox synagogue, know as Congregation “Beth Hamedrash Hachodosh Talmud Torah,” was located at 401 East 50th Street above a blacksmith shop.
In 1906, our congregation acquired a building at 221-223 East 51st Street from Congregation Orach Chaim. The Orach Chaim Synagogue had purchased this ornate building on May 20, 1898 from its former occupant, a Methodist mission chapel. After selling the property to our congregation, the Orach Chaim Synagogue relocated uptown to serve the burgeoning Jewish population of that area.
Expansion of Our Synagogue
In the mid 1950’s the synagogue became a conservative synagogue, known as the East 51st Street Synagogue. The synagogue building at 221-223 East 51st Street occupied a plot of land measuring 40 x 100 feet. In the mid 1960’s Simon Syrbnik (Honorary Vice President) purchased a plot of land for the synagogue from Con Edison at 225 East 51st Street. The plot measure 20 X 100 feet, thereby creating a total plot of 60 x 100 feet. In 1967 our congregation acquired the Con Edison property at 227 East 51st Street and adjoining plots on the next block, at 224 and 226 East 52nd Street.
In 1971 the Rockerfeller family asked the synagogue to sell them 221 East 51st Street. They had already acquired 217 and 219 East 51st Street. Abby Rockefeller then financed the creating of the beautiful Greenacre Park adjacent to our synagogue.
A New Synagogue Building
As reported in an article in the New York Times on Sunday, January 24, 1965, the East 51st Street Synagogue announced plans to construct a new synagogue building on its present site. The Inaugural Dinner, kicking off the Capital Campaign, was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Sunday, May 2, 1965.
The Honorary Chairmen were United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg and US Senators Jacob K. Javits and Abraham A. Ribicoff. The United Nations Secretary-General, U-Thant, sent a message of congratulations to the congregation and welcomed us as the third religious center serving the United Nations, complementing the service rendered by the Protestant Center for the United Nations and the Catholic Holy Name United Nations Parish. Edward I. Koch, who was then congressman, presented the synagogue with a flag that had flown over the Capitol.
During the demolition and construction phase, weekly Shabbat services were held in the former Con Edison building on East 52nd Street and High Holy Day Services were held held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In 1975, Warren Alpert was elected president of the synagogue, and together with Rabbi Kahane, (z’l) and dedicated members of the congregation, oversaw the completion and occupancy of the new facility. On September 3, 1975, our new synagogue building opened. Our congregation then became know as “Sutton Place Synagogue – The Jewish Center for the United Nations.” The Synagogue sold the East 52nd property to real estate developers on October 22, 1980. A residential apartment building now occupies the site.
A building boom occurred in the synagogue community in the late 1970’s and in the ’80s. High-rise apartment buildings sprung up all around us. Many Jewish singles, young couples and “empty-nesters,” occupied the apartments.
Anticipating an increase in membership and the need for future expansion, then Synagogue President Jack Sheingold and Rabbi Kahane (z’l) convinced the Board of Trustees to approve the purchase of the adjacent building. On December 11, 1985, the synagogue became the owner of 229 East 51st Street, now the site of the Sachs Family Educational Center.
In the latter half of 1994, Synagogue Preside Phillip Sassower and Rabbi Richard Thaler (z’l), spearheaded a “Beautification Project” to redesign and decorate the sanctuary. The membership supported the project, both with their time and means. The results were impressive. During the 1995 High Holy Days Services, our members worshiped, surrounded by magnificent furnishings, while seated in comfortable permanent pews, all made in the State of Israel.
Plans for use of the 229 East 51st Street property lay dormant until 1999. Many obstacles made construction undesirable, until architect Avi Malhotra designed a plan that provided for appropriate nursery and religious school classrooms. President Robert W. Berend, with Rabbi Thaler’s (z’l) dream for an educational center in mind, went forward. Chair of the Executive Committee Philip Sassower offered to act as Capital Campaign Chair. With major gifts from various members the campaign was launched. The 229 East 51st Street property was demolished in May 2000.
In September 2000, with just a hole in the ground visible, applications for enrollment in the Kaplan Nursery School came pouring in. And what seemed like an impossibility, was, in fact, a thrilling reality. The Sachs Family Educational Center opened in September 2001 and welcomed its first two-and three-year old Nursery School students and their families. The students of the Jackson Religious School began a new school year in modern state-of-the-art classrooms, a far cry from the temporary classrooms that were erected in the four corners of the synagogue’s ballroom for many years. On December 12, 2001, the Marvin and David Sachs Family Educational Center, the Stanley H. Kaplan Nursery School, and the Nathaniel and Fanny Stricks Jackson Religious School were officially dedicated with a moving ceremony and joyous celebration.
Sutton Place Synagogue has flourished during these one hundred plus years. We are known throughout New York City and its environs for our inspiring religious services, dynamic speakers, and innovative programs. Now, we turn our eyes to the future.
Clergy that serve/d our community:
SPS is a vibrant congregation, affiliated with the Conservative movement where people of all ages and backgrounds engage in learning Torah, acts of Tzedaka and participate in meaningful expressions of prayer; in an effort to strengthen their personal Jewish identity and to connect our membership with the greater Jewish community, Israel, and the global community in which we live.