Bringing Jewish Culture Back to Harlem

Jews are slowly returning to Harlem, hoping to bring back Jewish culture to a neighborhood where it used to thrive more than eighty years ago.

A sign of the development is the success of Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg and his wife Goldie. In 2007, the couple opened a Chabad, a Jewish center that provides educational and social activities for the community on Manhattan Avenue off of 116th street in Harlem. “I noticed that there was a potential and need to create a Jewish community center in this area,” he said. “So I said to myself: ‘Let’s try!’”

Via emails, flyers, and word-of-mouth, the Gansbourgs have managed to bring together at least 30 people every Jewish holiday and Sabbath – the weekly day of rest in Judaism.

“The level of religion does not matter, we focus on the educational and social parts, so everyone is welcome,” the rabbi said. Most recently, Gansbourg opened a Hebrew school at the location. Although only 12 students are registered, he said that more are coming each week, a sign of the growing strength of the Jewish community in Harlem. In the near future, he hopes to open a pre-school in the area. And he says he has demand for it already.

But the Gansbourgs’ Chabad is not the only Jewish site in the Harlem area. A few blocks away is the Old Broadway Synagogue. The synagogue is nestled between two tall apartment buildings on one narrow block off of 125th Street that is known as Old Broadway. And from the outside, one can easily spot the big blue Star of David on the stained-glass windows on the façade.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Jewish Communal Register, which chronicles Jewish life, listed 150 synagogues in Harlem. Old Broadway is the only synagogue still remaining. The rest have been turned into churches throughout the years but old inscriptions in Hebrew are still visible on some of Harlem’s buildings.

Dr. Paul Radensky, the current president of the Old Broadway congregation, credits the synagogue’s survival to Rabbi Jacob Kret who led services from 1950 until 1977, when he retired.

“Rabbi Kret was a very motivated man who devoted his time recruiting people to attend services,” said Radensky. “He was tireless.”

Today, about 25 people come to Old Broadway Synagogue to pray every Shabbat. “But people come, and others go,” Radensky admits, “so the number varies all the time.” The relatively small number, Radensky explained, was partly due to the opening of the Gansbourgs’ Chabad . “People have more options now so they are spread out into different places,” he said.

Still, the Jewish community in Harlem today is incomparable to what it used to be eight decades ago. “There were synagogues, Hebrew homes for the aged, Hebrew schools, Jewish clinics, hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, theaters, bookstores, butchers, and bakeries,” said Murray Simon, an 85-year old retired educational advisor and social studies teacher, who grew up in Harlem from 1925 to 1942. “It was common to see many signs in both English and Yiddish in the streets of Harlem. You saw a lot of tsitsit hanging and many men wore the kippa,” he said, referring to the fringe attached to four-cornered garments and the skullcap both worn by observant Jewish men.

The Jewish population in Harlem has dropped significantly over the past century. According to Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, and author of When Harlem was Jewish, 1870-1930, at least 178,000 Jews lived in Harlem in 1921. According to Gurock, Harlem had the third largest Jewish population in the world, after Warsaw, Poland and the Lower East Side.

Until 1914, Harlem attracted people seeking to improve their living conditions. Yet the start of World War I put an end to new housing constructions because of the high prices of materials, the delay in obtaining them, and the lack of skilled labor.

“Harlem became overcrowded and quickly deteriorated and then there was violence,” said Gurock.

The overcrowding situation and the excessively-high rents forced the Jews out of the neighborhood. Harlem was henceforth housing those who were incapable of fleeing to newly-constructed areas. Facing discrimination elsewhere, other ethnic groups had no choice but to stay in Harlem and fight the high rents by sharing apartments and driving per-person costs down.

As Harlem decayed, the Jewish migration started. By 1925, the Jewish population in Harlem was down to 123,000; by 1927, it dropped to 88,000; and by 1930, only 5,000 Jews remained in Harlem. Jews had settled in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Upstate New York.

The recent gentrification of Harlem has diversified the neighborhood. According to the 2008 census the black population was no longer the majority, dipping to 41 percent compared to 64 percent in 1970. The construction of luxury buildings along with the significant drop in violence  has attracted families who want to take advantage of nice homes for affordable rents.

Given Harlem’s history and encouraged by the recent gentrification, Rabbi Gansbourg is determined to revive the flavor of Jewish culture of the neighborhood. “One synagogue in Harlem,” said Gansbourg, “was not enough.”