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Special Interview Synagogue That Remains Despite Urban Decay Subject of Exhibit

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When you walk down the streets of the South Bronx, says resident Moishe Sacks, you see many churches that used to be synagogues. “Then you come to Intervale Avenue and you can’t say ‘this used to be a synagogue.’ And you know why? Because it still is a synagogue!”

The Intervale Jewish Center is the only synagogue still in use in the South Bronx, an area in New York City whose name has become synonymous with urban devastation and decay. The congregation is tiny; its members elderly and poor. Its spiritual leader and acting rabbi is Sacks, a baker. Its newest member is Dr. Jack Kugelmass, an anthropologist.

Kugelmass, a research associate at the Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, does not live in the neighborhood. But for the last three and one-half years, he has regularly attended Shabbat services and the Sunday brunches and study sessions held in the synagogue. He became interested in the synagogue when he was asked to write an article about it; he continued his visits when he decided to do his fieldwork project there. Now he just goes. When he speaks of the congregation, he says “we.”

KEEPS RETURNING TO SYNAGOGUE

“I don’t want to keep going,” he said in a recent interview. But he can learn so much there, he continued. “I find it difficult not to go.”

The result of his research and interest is “The Miracle of Intervale Avenue,” an exhibition of photographs, accompanying texts and a slide presentation that opened at the Jewish Museum June 16 and will remain on view through October 31. He is also writing a book about his experiences.

The point of the exhibit is to show “how people manage their own deaths,” he said. The question is, he said, why, despite the efforts of family and relief agencies, do “these old people choose to stay?”

“Their main concern,” he explained, “is how to manage the last stages of their lives. They want to die in dignity, which in effect means they want to live out the end in dignity.”

WORRY ABOUT WHO WILL SAY KADDISH

They also worry about immortality, about who will say Kaddish and who will commemorate their Ychrzeit, Kugelmass said. “To them, the inheritance is immortality,” he continued. “They want to leave an object for their children, a house, a car. You sit in a luxury cary” to these people, “it will be them.”

His other main hope for the exhibit is that it will “break the barrier between us and old people. It’s not that these people are stupid and why don’t they get out.” Rather, “here are people dealing with the deck of cards life dealt them.

“These are us later in life. They don’t demand pity, they don’t demand money. They don’t demand anything from us. They are giving us, giving us information on how to deal with life,” Kugelmass explained.

The backdrop for their lives is almost the antithesis of life. In fact, Kugelmass sees the South Bronx “as a metaphor for death itself.”

Located close to Manhattan, with large, roomy apartments, the South Bronx was once a large, thriving Jewish community. It was a step up from the Lower East Side for many immigrants and their children.

The exodus from the neighborhood began after World War II, when houses in the suburbs were being subsidized by the government, according to Kugelmass. The Jewish community become an aging one, with no younger generation to replace it. “That in itself spells the end of a community,” he said.

Massive riots were held in the area in the late 1960’s. The ’70’s were just a “disaster,” said Kugelmass. Both landlords and tenants were setting buildings on fire not because of a so-called “war” but for money, he said. “Anybody who could, got out,” he added, “except for the die-hards.”

“The area is grim,” he admitted; he said the residents recognize this also. “There are miles and miles of devastation.

“Still,” he added, “there are a half million people living there, and they are not all junkies and criminals.”

2 DOZEN CONGREGANTS

Around two dozen of them are congregants of the Intervale Jewish Center. For them, the synagogue serves as a focal point — it provides companionship, social activities and, mostly, the opportunity to continue practicing Jewish ritual, especially the recital of Kaddish and Yahrzeit. As such, it plays a crucial role in their effort to maintain their independence and their dignity.

Many of the residents are close with their children and see them often, but like Mrs. Elsie Miroff, according to Kugelmass, they find the suburbs “boring.” On the street, they court her. In the suburbs, she is a grandmother. She doesn’t have the same authority as she has on the street.”

Mrs. Miroff feeds some of the street people and some of the men who work part-time at the Hunts Point Market, which is nearby. “Mine bums,” she calls them, and in turn they protect her. “There is a reciprocity,” Kugelmass said, “which contributes to the safety” of the elderly people. They know almost everyone in the neighborhood and when they see a stranger, they always say hello, he said. “It means more security,” he explained. “They know (the area) is dangerous, but not for them.”

There are striking pictures in the exhibit of some of these elderly people surrounded by the street people. There is no fear in anyone’s eyes.

ALWAYS A MINYAN

The synagogue building itself “is very decrepit,” according to Kugelmass. It smells and suffers from constant leaking. “It wasn’t significant 20 years ago,” he said, unlike some of the grander synagogues that are now closed.

But here, today, Moishe Sacks goes over the weekly portion every Sunday at brunch, and here, every Shabbat, he somehow finds a minyan, the quorum of ten adult males necessary for the performance of synagogue ritual.

When there were only six men present one time, Sacks said it was okay because anybody over 65 is counted as two, according to the Internal Revenue Service, Kugelmass said. And when there are only nine, as there usually are. Sacks counts God as the tenth. Kugelmass is the ninth.

Sacks believes the synagogue will go on forever, Kugelmass said. As for Kugelmass, he just shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

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