For The Bronx, It’s Desolation Row


“How the city sits solitary that was once full of people.”
Lamentations 1:1

Back when bandleaders played clarinets, and overhead fans whirled over rattan subway seats, the Bronx streets looked like Easy Street for Jews once removed from the Lower East Side or Europe itself. “The Goldbergs” radio comedy was fictionally situated in a Bronx walk-up. In the 1930s and ’40s, the borough was 44 percent Jewish, but some neighborhoods topped 70 percent, a higher percentage of Jews than in Jerusalem today.

On the Friday night of the first Yom Ha’Atzmaut in 1948, Bronx Jews flocked into the streets. Rabbi Zevulon Charlop, dean of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, remembers the sun setting and “people were streaming from all corners of the neighborhood” to his father’s Marmion Avenue shul, a building with 1,200 seats; each seat was taken. The aisles, lobby and stairs were brimming, the sidewalks were filled.

“There must have been 5,000 Jews there, easy,” Rabbi Charlop says.

That shul is now boarded up, abandoned.

In 1948, there were more Jews in the Bronx — 650,000 — than in the new State of Israel. In 2003, just 45,000 are left, according to the 2002 Jewish Community Study sponsored by UJA-Federation. In the 10 years since the last survey in 1991, the Bronx has lost a staggering 45 percent of its Jewish population. Staten Island, whose Jewish population was once dwarfed by the Bronx, now has about the same number of Jews; that borough’s Jewish population jumped 27 percent in 10 years.

Most Bronx Jews are concentrated in a single neighborhood, Riverdale, a sliver of land along the Hudson River on high ground that isolates the neighborhood as surely as money solidifies it. Riverdale is as an unlikely survivor. As recently as the 1950s, Riverdale was the Bronx neighborhood with the fewest Jews and no synagogue at all.

Today, Riverdale has preschools, day schools, high schools and rabbinical academies; nine synagogues from all denominations; kosher restaurants in a variety of cuisines; Sabbath-observant little leagues; day camps; a Y; dozens of fraternal groups; and a volunteer ambulance.

But if Riverdale has all the accoutrements of a small town, most of the rest of the Jewish Bronx is as abandoned as an Appalachian mining hollow. Across the borough, afternoon Hebrew schools that once housed hundreds of students are shuttered. In the Great White Hopes of Jewish housing, Co-Op City and the Amalgamated Cooperative Houses, few remain but the old and lonely. According to professionals familiar with these projects, Co-Op City has dwindled from more than 51,000 Jews in 1970 to perhaps 5,000. The Amalgamated, once home to 1,500 Jewish families, now houses half that.

Only one day school, Beth Miriam/Beth Jacob in Pelham Parkway, exists outside Riverdale. Yeshiva University’s Einstein medical school is a colossus astride the east Bronx, but its student population is transient and the doctors commute — from Riverdale, as much as anywhere else.

When the Jews left, they ran. Rabbi Charlop, of the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway, recalls his shul selling 780 Rosh HaShanah seats in 1977. The next year, it sold 30 less. By 1982, it was 300 less.

Only the Russians were moving in. Rabbi Charlop’s shul gave each Russian family new furniture, new beds, and even hired a Russian translator to explain the sermons. Then the Russians moved away, too.

The ghosts know where everyone lived. Sholom Aleichem lived over on Kelly Street. Red Buttons liked the kosher deli on Bainbridge. Tony Curtis came out of Hunts Point. Before signing with the Tigers, Hank Greenberg played on a field where Parkchester was later built. Billy Joel came out of the Bronx before moving to the Island. Calvin Klein, Robert Klein, Garry Marshall and Penny Marshall lived by Moshulu Parkway. Alan Pakula was from the Bronx before directing Oscar-winning films. Chaim Potok and Herman Wouk once called the Bronx home. Carl Reiner stayed in the Bronx long enough for it to be home to Rob Reiner. Into the 1970s, Dr. Roslyn Yalow was a resident of Kingsbridge when she won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Trouble was, other than Sholom Aleichem and Yalow, every one of those famous names moved away. Conventional wisdom says that Bronx Jews were driven away by crime, blacks and Hispanics, but let’s not forget those driven by ambition.

‘No Interest In Staying’
Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University who himself moved from Parkchester to Riverdale, says: “We weren’t driven out of Parkchester, but nobody had any interest in staying.”

The reasons were modest but real.

“You’ll laugh,” he says, “but air conditioning had something to do with it.” The Parkchester apartments were not sufficiently wired to allow for air conditioners. That may have been tolerable for immigrants but not for a second generation.

Gurock, 53, says he joined the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale because “several other Parkchester alumni had moved to Riverdale. It was like a landsmanschaft situation, or a chain migration. We didn’t leave to escape Parkchester. On the contrary, we joined HIR to re-create Parkchester,” albeit with private homes and better apartments.

Bernie Horowitz moved to Riverdale from Parkchester in 1980 when he felt the neighborhood tipping beyond the point of no return, losing that critical mass necessary to keep itself viable. By 1980 there were no little children running around the shul. His daughter, then 11, had no one to play with.
“And there was no one my age either,” he recalls. He was 39 at the time.

Horowitz left but never said goodbye. He’s still president of the Young Israel of Parkchester, 23 years after moving away. This winter, after years of financial and demographic desolation, he arranged for the sale of the shul building, and for the pews and stained glass to go to a synagogue in New Jersey. He leased a Parkchester storefront so the remnants of the neighborhood, including his mom, could still have a place for services, meals and socializing.

Some are bitter. Rabbi Jacob Soddin, 83, of the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center, says his neighborhood is struggling because “we don’t have the aura of snob neighborhoods like Riverdale.”

In fact, the Amalgamated apartments, the heart of Jewish Van Cortlandt, were built in 1926 by the (overwhelmingly Jewish) Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union so they, in turn, could move away from the Lower East Side.

Rabbi Soddin, a former chairman of the Touro College sociology department, says, “Jews were very conscious of their upward mobility, and proving it. That’s why Italian neighborhoods last a lot longer than Jewish ones.”

Gurock points out that for most of the 20th century, prior to Riverdale, New York’s immigrant Jews never developed a “a sense of turf.” Riverdale is likely the first four-generation Bronx community, in which many neighbors know each other’s grandparents, one end, and great-grandchildren, on the other.

The old Bronx was never anchored by chasidim, never had a strong chasidic leader such as the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who decreed in the 1960s that inner-city neighborhoods not be evacuated.

Chabad To The Rescue?
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the rebbe’s secretariat and now administrator of the international movement, told The Jewish Week, “The rebbe always spoke of how wrong it was to abandon Crown Heights and its Jewish institutions,” let alone the poorer Jews who couldn’t afford to leave.

“Now it’s our duty to help other neighborhoods. We’ve been contacted by the Greystone community in Yonkers,” just over the Bronx line, noted Rabbi Krinsky, “when they were afraid of losing their building and assets. They asked us to come in and see what we can do. We’ll be opening a school there by 2004.”

The Chabad emissary to Riverdale, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, has been given responsibility for the borough as a whole. Chabad rabbis are now working in Kingsbridge and Co-Op City, and there are plans for Pelham Parkway. Rabbi Shemtov is an optimist, and with reason. There’s still some Jewish life in Kingsbridge. Unlike Co-Op City, where the nearest kosher bakery is in Queens, within a few blocks of the Kingsbridge Center of Israel is a kosher bagel store, a hot dog deli and an Israeli locksmith. There are many private homes on small lots, and some decent apartments, five minutes away from Riverdale’s schools and facilities.

KCI’s senior rabbi, Harvey Crupar, says: “We may have four or five years left. The only Jews moving into the neighborhood are Russians. Do we have enough time to survive while the Russians grow religiously and socially?”

Two years ago, Rabbi Crupar agreed to pay one-third toward the salary of a Russian-speaking Lubavitcher, Rabbi Yehuda Balashov.

Rabbi Crupar says, “This is it. If we can’t attract younger families, we’ll go the way of …” There were too many dead shuls to finish the sentence.

The rabbi himself chooses to live in Riverdale, but Rabbi Balashov moved into Kingsbridge and is immersed in the Russian life there. This Passover, says Rabbi Crupar, Rabbi Balashov’s community seder attracted 50 or 60 Russians. The seder led by Rabbi Crupar drew less than 20.

Rabbi Crupar resents Chabad: “Chabad’s history is to take over synagogues. I think they have an agenda, which is to take over.”

But if the Bronx is doomed, what exactly would Chabad be taking over?

“I guess it wouldn’t be so bad,” says Rabbi Crupar. “If they can turn this thing around, I’d like to see it happen.”