Located on West 47th Street in Manhattan—not far from Times Square—the Actors’ Temple still holds regular services, having been revived about a decade ago when it came close to shutting its doors. Its primary connection to the theater district today is that it rents its space for off-Broadway performances on weekdays, but it was once a magnet for celebrities, as Josefin Dolsten recounts:
The Three Stooges, the actors Shelley Winters and Aaron Chwatt (better known as Red Buttons), the baseball stars Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, and the television host Ed Sullivan all prayed there. Sullivan, whose wife was Jewish [but he himself was not], also hosted the annual temple benefit at the Majestic Theater. Headshots of stars who frequented the synagogue hang on a wall.
The synagogue was founded in 1917 for a very different crowd: Orthodox shopkeepers who worked in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood lined today with bars and restaurants catering to the pre-theater crowd but which at the time was rife with gangs.
In the 1920s, the synagogue, formerly known as Congregation Ezrath Israel, hired Bernard Birstein as its first rabbi. Birstein had his eyes on Broadway, which was home to many Jewish actors and actresses but few regular synagogue-goers. . . . One of Birstein’s first recruits was the popular Ukrainian-born entertainer Sophie Tucker, [famous for singing “My Yiddishe Mama”]. After Tucker, other stars started flowing in.