Sometime in the mid-1880s, after the first wave of Jewish immigrants from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire settled in Harlem, and a little before the beginning of the great influx from Russia and East Europe, a small band of shomerei mitzvot established a modest kehilla known as Beth Israel - House of Israel – on West 35th Street. The area at the time was at the edge of the Tenderloin district, famous for its brothels, saloons and dance halls. A little farther west were the rumbling steam locomotives atop the new elevated train along 9th Avenue. And beyond, were the Hudson River piers, where live cattle would be unloaded from barges coming down from the Erie Canal and goods from all over the world would arrive on the largest new iron-hulled steam ships.
As they celebrated one Rosh HaShanah after another, the West Side Jewish Center congregation saw New York undergo one of the its most spectacular periods of growth. Electric lights brought a night-life to the city. Telephones made it possible to conduct business everywere. The East River was spanned by no less than 4 great bridges. And the Statue of Liberty was erected as if on cue, poised to welcome the flood of immigrants about to arrive – more than 1½ million of whom would be Jewish. By 1910, just 25 years after Congregation Beth Israel was founded, New York became the largest Jewish community in the world.
Most immigrants during this time came to America for economic reasons. They intented to make their fortune and return to their native villages where they left their families. The Jewish immigrants however, were escaping pogroms and cruel discrimination from their former countrymen. They came largely as families, and like their ancestors departing Egypt, brought with them their culture and faith in HaShem.
In the Register of The New York Kehila published in 1918, Congregation Beth Israel was listed among 343 synagogues in New York City ! It's president was Philp Liebman and Secretary was Samuel L. Lethol. It was described as having a seating capacity of "600" – surely one of the largest such synagogue buildings in the City at that time! The new building was erected on West 34th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue. What a change had the neighborhood undergone. The elegant Winter Palace-like Pennsylvania Station (1910) and monumental Post Office (1913) building along 8th Avenue by architects McKim, Mead and White. Macy's Department Store (1901) and the New York Pennsylvania Hotel, made famous by bandleader Glenn Miller.
It was the beginning of The Jazz Age.