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    I. Lower East Side

    The question has
    arisen numerous times
    whether a community
    may buy a church
    building to be used
    as a synagogue. In the
    1850’s, such a question arose in a political
    battle over the oldest Eastern European
    synagogue in New York. In 1852, the first
    Eastern European synagogue in New York
    City, and the first Russian synagogue in
    America, opened in the Lower East Side.
    It was called Beth HaMedrash, not to be
    confused by a later break-away named
    Beth HaMedrash HaGadol. The next
    year, Rav Avraham Asch was appointed
    rabbi. However, one of the congregants,
    Rav Yehudah Mittleman, was also an
    ordained rabbi. These two clashed about
    the appointment of a specific individual
    as shochet, slaughterer. Rav Mittleman
    left the synagogue and started his own.
    In 1856, the Beth HaMedrash bought
    a Welsh church and converted it into a
    synagogue, dedicating the new home
    on Shavuos eve with Rav Avraham Rice
    of Baltimore in attendance. This was

    neither the first nor the last time that a
    synagogue used the premises of a former
    church but it seems to have generated the
    most halachic discussion. Apparently,
    Rav Mittleman attempted to obtain
    rabbinic disapproval from Europe for the
    use of a former church as a synagogue. In
    response, Rav Asch looked to Europe for
    rabbinic approval.
    Rav Mittleman inquired of the great
    rabbinic authority, Rav Yosef Shaul
    Nathanson of Rav Mittleman’s hometown
    Lvov, Poland, whether a congregation
    may purchase a Protestant church and
    convert it into a synagogue. It seems clear
    from the language that Rav Mittleman
    was asking for a prohibitive ruling. The
    responsum was issued in 1858 while the
    synagogue moved into the converted
    church in 1856. It is not clear whether
    the delay was due to limitations in
    communications or some other reason.
    II. First Response From Europe
    Rav Nathanson (Responsa Sho’el
    U-Meishiv, first recension, vol. 3 nos.
    72-73) quotes the Magen Avraham
    (154:17) who cites a responsum of

    Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (1:79) that a
    house used for idolatry may be used
    for prayer. Even though items used for
    idolatry may not be used for prayer
    because they are disgraceful, a house is
    different. The Magen Avraham suggests
    that the difference lies in a house being
    connected, more or less, to the ground.
    And the ground can never be forbidden
    due to idolatry.
    Some, such as the Dagul Me-Revavah
    (ad loc.) and Chasam Sofer (glosses,
    ad loc.; Responsa, Orach Chaim 42)
    bring proof from a comment of Tosafos
    (Megillah 6a sv. tiratra’os) that a house is
    also forbidden. The Gemara (Megillah
    6a) says that the biblical promise that
    “And he shall be as a chief in Judah, and
    Ekron as a Jebusite” (Zech. 9:6) means
    that in the future, the princes of Yehudah
    will teach Torah in Roman theaters and
    circuses. Tosafos quote an opinion that
    this refers to houses of pagan worship
    which are derogatorily called theaters
    and circuses. However, Tosafos reject
    the possibility that Torah will be taught
    in such disgraceful places. This seems to
    imply that Torah study, and presumably
    prayer, should not take place in buildings
    previously used for foreign religions.
    Rav Nathanson rejects this proof
    because Tosafos do not use the
    word forbidden. Tosafos say that it
    is difficult to interpret the Talmud
    that way, meaning that it is difficult
    to say that this biblical prophecy
    refers to pagan houses of worship.
    It doesn’t seem like the prophet
    would promise something relatively
    unseemly as such a good sign. But it
    is not forbidden. Rav Nathanson then
    disagrees with Tosafos and suggests
    that the conversion of a pagan house
    of worship to a house devoted to the
    worship of God is actually a great
    praise of God. Idolatry will be wiped
    off the face of earth so that even the
    central places of idolatry will be
    dedicated to God.
    III. Second Response From Europe
    In 1858, Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger of
    Altona, Germany, sent a responsum
    on the same issue to Rav Abraham
    Asch (Binyan Tziyon 1:63). Rav
    Ettlinger sides with Tosafos against
    the Magen Avraham. He advances
    the consideration that gentiles are
    permitted to embrace Christianity but
    counters that Jews are not, therefore
    this does not point to leniency. He

    concludes that he rules strictly but allows
    for reliance on the Magen Avraham in
    a time of great need. Additionally, since
    the church purchased for Rav Asch’s
    synagogue was originally built as a
    private house, this offers another reason
    for leniency.
    IV. Later Authorities
    In a responsum dated 1900, Rav David
    Tzvi Hoffmann (Melamed Le-Ho’il,
    Orach Chaim 20) addresses the same
    issue. He accepts Tosafos as forbidding
    the use of a house of foreign worship
    for prayer. After pursuing and rejecting
    a number of possible ways to reconcile
    Tosafos with the Magen Avraham, Rav
    Hoffmann concludes that they disagree.
    However, in the specific case he was
    considering, he ruled leniently because
    the building had ceased serving as a
    church decades earlier.
    The Mishnah Berurah (154:45) says
    that common practice follows the
    Magen Avraham‘s lenient ruling. The
    famous mid-twentieth century halachic
    authority of the Lower East Side, Rav
    Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach
    Chaim 1:49), disagrees with this lenient
    conclusion of the Mishnah Berurah and
    what he says is common practice in the
    US. He was not willing to forbid prayer in
    synagogues that were converted churches
    but he also would not permit the practice
    of buying a church for synagogue use.