Originally, the Museum at Eldridge Street was a major synagogue that earned recognition as a National Historic Landmark in 1996. Only two synagogues in the United States are National Historic Landmarks. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the first established synagogues in the United States. Eastern European Jews opened the synagogue in Chinatown in the Lower East Side in 1887.
Though the synagogue was a house of worship, it provided more than religious services to the public. After its opening, it began to serve as a place of welcome for immigrants. Impoverished people made their way to this synagogue for food and to learn about job opportunities. Additionally, the synagogue made arrangements for the sick and the dying.
In 2007, the synagogue was turned into a museum about American Jewish heritage. Nowadays, the museum offers tours to visitors about Jewish history, the history of the Lower East Side, and immigration.
The museum still continues to offer religious services, such as evening, daytime, and holiday services. The museum also allows visitors to participate in cultural events, tours, and educational programs. The goal of the museum is to inform and teach about American Jewish history, while fostering collaboration and exchange of ideas between people of all faiths and cultures.
The museum’s permanent exhibition houses Jewish ritual items, archived documents and artifacts, and Yiddish signs. In addition to archived objects, the Museum at Eldridge Street also features interactive exhibitions where visitors can discover immigration history. The museum has a Family History Center that features various photographs from the Lower East Side.
The museum is mostly full of remnants from the synagogue, but there is a 21st century addition within the actual museum. Artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans created a stained glass window for the museum that is on display. It is the only addition to the museum from this century.