Photos coming soon.
Our Unique and Proud History
The Actors’ Temple was founded in 1917 as the West Side Hebrew Relief Association. Its leaders were Orthodox Jews who owned shops in the rough-and-tumble district called Hell's Kitchen, at the time one of the world's busiest steamship ports. The founders borrowed a Biblical nickname for God, Ezrath Israel, "the One who assists Israel," as the name for their benevolent little Jewish community center. At a time when show business people were not readily accepted in society, Rabbi Bernard Birstein and later Cantor Louis Malamud went to Broadway and made friends with Sophie Tucker, Red Buttons, and other actors working in show business. They provided a place where actors could be accepted and feel at home. The actors introduced their friends to the synagogue, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Talent from vaudeville, cabaret, nightclubs, television, and Broadway made the synagogue a true 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. Academy Award–winner Shelley Winters kept the High Holy Days in our sanctuary. The Three Stooges and Harpo Marx attended services too. Famous non-Jewish entertainers—such as Ed Sullivan, whose wife, the former Sylvia Weinstein, was Jewish, and Frank Sinatra—were also friends of Rabbi Birstein and the Temple.
Our historic building, constructed in 1923, has been designated a national landmark. The sanctuary features stained-glass memorials and bronze plaques to many of these beloved show business luminaries of yesteryear, including comedian Joe E. Lewis and singer Sophie Tucker, who headlined an annual benefit for the Temple on Broadway. And you’ll find many of their original headshots and biographies in our Actors’ Photo Gallery, on the stairwell walls. Collectively, this group of extraordinarily talented individuals made a contribution to American life through the arts that is beyond measure. The Actors’ Temple is a part of American history, Jewish history, and Show Business history.
Eventually the nightclubs closed, television went west and vaudeville disappeared. The Actors’ Temple declined along with the Times Square area, but the proud shul remained to anchor the neighborhood.
A stroll through our part of midtown today confirms the resurgence of the Theater District and Hell's Kitchen. Block after block has sprouted condominiums, corporate offices, and more theaters. Actors Temple is resurgent too, adding members and staff, while evolving into a diverse congregation where every voice is heard--and respected.
The Present Day
Today’s congregation is progressive, egalitarian, eclectic, and post-denominational, using fresh approaches to enliven worship while maintaining deep connections to our Jewish roots. We provide community and self-expression, deeds of loving kindness, and caring. And we take great pride in carrying on our Jewish Show Business tradition by being a place of acceptance, spirituality, creativity, and love.