Special Report Synagogues Affected by City Cutbacks

The sharp cutbacks during 1974 and 1975 in basic New York City services, particularly in police and fire protection, forced many synagogues in the city to cancel night worship and service programs. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency survey also found that vandalism and synagogue closings have reflected continuing deterioration of neighborhoods, rather than the reduction in city services.

The JTA made the survey over a period of several weeks recently after the city made some restorations of the service cuts, starting in mid 1976, and it became possible to assess the impact of the cuts.

To determine how the synagogues have been affected and whether reported synagogue shutdowns were known to be related to the cutbacks in municipal protection services, the JTA submitted questionnaires to the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues; the New York Metropolitan Region of the United Synagogue of America; the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; and the National Council of Young Israel, an association of Orthodox congregations. Each has more than 100 synagogue affiliates in New York City.

The principal impact of growing crime on New York City streets seems to have been a reduction of evening programs at the synagogues, the responding executives agreed. Some synagogues have started to provide escort services for worshippers. But agreement was general that such problems had been developing before the city service cutbacks and will probably continue as the city begins to restore police and fire protection to some degree.

CITY-WIDE REPORT

The most detailed report came from Rabbi Stuart A. Gertman, director of the Reform synagogues federation, who indicated he had undertaken “a limited survey” of affiliated congregations. He offered a borough-by-borough report.

In Manhattan, he reported, synagogues have not been affected by the service cutbacks and there have been no significant indications of burglaries or vandalism, no abandonment and “no significant changes in synagogue procedure or program.” One exception was the Fort Washington Synagogue, which was closed last August. The Hebrew Tabemacle, while not reporting vandalism, did report that elderly congregants complained about crime.

Gertman said The Bronx was “a disaster area” for Reform congregations. Tremont Temple and Sinai Congregation closed within a six-month period, both merging with other congregations. He reported that while it was impossible to conclude that the closings were inevitable, he felt that the total atmosphere of “inhospitableness” would have led to the eventual closing of the synagogues but, he added, the municipal service cutbacks were “the final straw” in decreasing the local Jewish population and synagogue program possibilities.

Not counting a congregation at Co-op City, there are two Reform congregations left in The Bronx, whose officers and members have expressed fears of vandalism. The officers find it impossible to schedule evening programs, Gertman reported.

He said Reform synagogues in Queens have been largely unaffected by the city service cutbacks. Some Queens Reform congregations have organized escort services because of general fear of street crime, but there have been no reports of arson or vandalism against Reform synagogues in Queens, he said.

In Brooklyn, three Reform synagogues have been vandalized in the recent past, two in Flatbush and one in Benson Hurst. Gertman said Reform synagogues in Brooklyn generally find there is no purpose in offering programs at night because congregants are unwilling to travel after dark. Those synagogues report a lower level of participation in general by severely victimized groups, specifically the elderly. Synagogue officials report an exodus of the middle class from Brooklyn areas where the crime rate is rising. He said no problems were reported by Reform congregations on Staten Island.

GENERAL DETERIORATION CITED

Gertman said that, given the situation of the neighborhoods where problems have been reported, he did not think the synagogues had been singled out for attack. “Rather,” he commented, “a general deterioration is inevitably followed by the deterioration of a community that can support a synagogue and therefore to the deteriorating of the synagogue itself.”

Gertman suggested that the situation in such communities “has been deteriorating for years and one cannot separate that deterioration from the specific decrease in municipal services.” He added that increasing police and fire protection would not solve the problem “but will merely postpone the inevitable, unless we begin to think about the root causes.”

On the more hopeful side, Gertman reported, there has been “increased membership and in creased religious school enrollment in most of our synagogues, even those in deteriorating neighborhoods,” where there is a determination to refuse to give up.

Tomorrow: Part Two

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