View Full Version : An Evolving South Bronx, Seen in Its Synagogues

November 7th, 2003, 04:19 AM
November 7, 2003

An Evolving South Bronx, Seen in Its Synagogues


Slide Show: The Synagogues of the South Bronx (http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2003/11/06/nyregion/20031107synagogue_1.html)

"Synagogues are only buildings made of bricks and mortar," Dr. Seymour J. Perlin once wrote. "The people of a congregation make a synagogue come to life."

Of course, the people of a congregation have a tendency to age, or die, or move from the neighborhood to seaside condominiums in Florida, leaving their synagogues behind as fodder for developers or finished products for the next wave of worshipers moving in.

Dr. Perlin, a sociologist, documented just this sort of natural transition in a 1997 manuscript, "The Eternal Light: A Comprehensive Survey of Synagogues in the Bronx." The work, which sits unpublished in a quiet room of the Bronx County Historical Society, tells the story of scores of South Bronx synagogues that are now being used as churches, day care centers, clinics, video stores and jails.

According to his research, which began in 1985, there were more than 200 synagogues in the South Bronx alone in the 1930's, serving a Jewish population that at its height numbered as many as 363,000 souls. Today, only two active synagogues are left in the area, said Lloyd Ultan, the borough's historian, catering to an ever-dwindling community of Jews.

The old Temple Adath Israel, for instance, built in 1928 on the Grand Concourse, is now the Grand Concourse Seventh-day Adventist Temple. The old Fulton Avenue Young Men's Hebrew Association, which had a synagogue on its first floor, is now the Fulton Community Correctional Facility.

This juxtaposition of old and new tells the momentous story of the South Bronx with the brevity of a sound bite. Consider, after all, how much history is contained within the fact that what was once the Walton Avenue Synagogue is now Segundo El Faro Iglesia Pentacostal.

The first Jew in the Bronx to leave a record of his presence, Mr. Ultan said, was a farmer named Phillip Isaacs, who in the 1750's owned a plot of land in the northeast corner of the borough. As Dr. Perlin explains in his introduction, the first large wave of Jewish immigration came in the 1840's when German and Hungarian artisans and peddlers settled in the neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Morrisania and Hunts Point.

By the 1980's, most Jews had left the South Bronx for the northern portions of the borough, Westchester County and elsewhere, Dr. Perlin writes. Mr. Ultan, who has been guarding the manuscript for the last six years, adds that Yiddish used to be the Bronx's second language; now, of course, it is Spanish.

Dr. Perlin came up with the idea for his book one day in the mid-1980's, he explained in an interview, when he noticed that an old synagogue on Southern Boulevard had simply disappeared. "Sometimes you get an idea, and you hope it disappears so you don't get stuck with it," he said. "This one stuck with me."

Three years ago, Dr. Perlin, the former director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, expressed interest in using his manuscript as an exhibit, but it never happened.

"At this point, I've given up on publication," Dr. Perlin said, "so whatever happens, happens."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

March 20th, 2004, 08:13 PM
March 21, 2004


At Synagogue in Shambles, WD-40 and Lots of Hope


Murray Ellman inside the Intervale Jewish Center in the Longwood section of the South Bronx. The synagogue, built in 1922, has fallen into disrepair. Its last heyday was in the 1980's. But every month or so, members come to the synagogue to hold a Sabbath service.

Murray Ellman turned up at the Intervale Jewish Center last week with a can of WD-40 oil. It was the one thing that would get him through the door.

The lock on the synagogue had not been turned since January, and was rusty. But giving it a squirt, he popped the catch and stepped inside.

As it happened, the lock was the least of Mr. Ellman's troubles. The synagogue was in a shambles. The rugs were damp. The floor sagged like unbaked dough. The roof was caving in.

Atop the wooden benches was a blizzard's worth of plaster flakes. The whole place, to be honest, smelled of mangy dog.

"You know," Mr. Ellman said, "it's not as bad as I had thought."

While his comment might seem like self-delusion, it is rather a continuance of the undying strain of hope this synagogue has managed to instill in its congregants for more than 80 years. The Intervale center, a pile of bricks in the Longwood section of the Bronx, has lived through several lifetimes, dying once, surviving resurrection, then dying once again.

It was built in 1922 by Russian immigrants from Minsk, who in the old days flourished in the neighborhood. Longwood was a different place back then. There were kosher bakeries and Yiddish theaters and synagogues where Jews would come to pray.

Now, of course, the Jews have left the South Bronx and their synagogues have gradually turned into churches, clinics, video stores, even jails. The Intervale's last heyday, in the early 1980's, was remarkable enough that an anthropologist named Jack Kugelmass spent five years studying the place and wrote a book about it called "The Miracle of Intervale Avenue."

Miracles, however, are like lightning. They don't strike twice. And these days Mr. Ellman is looking for something much more modest than divine intervention. A wealthy man would do.

"It would be great if someone could just come in and fix the place," he said. "We don't need the whole building. They can have the building. All we need is a room to pray in, and a clean bathroom. They can have the rest."

Mr. Ellman, 59, is the latest man to have caught the strange disease of hope that seems to have infected nearly everyone who comes in contact with the place. He first came to the synagogue in 1967 when he was working in the 41st Precinct as a rookie officer on foot patrol.

As he recalls, there were several older Jewish men on nearby Tinton Avenue and he said, "Where you going?" They told him they were going to the synagogue, or shul, to pray.

A few years later, he got a phone call from a man who said he was the rabbi at the shul. His name was Moishe Sacks. Mr. Sacks, he said, had heard that there were nearly 20 Jewish officers at the local station house alone. It was unusual - and, yes, an opportunity. So every Passover for the next 10 years or so, Mr. Sacks prevailed on Mr. Ellman to bring him bundles of matzos, horseradish, bitter greens and other Passover food.

In the way of these things, Mr. Sacks passed on his viral hope to Mr. Ellman. Mr. Sacks was not a man to stand on ceremony. If there were only nine men present at the synagogue, instead of the 10 that are required by law to pray, he would open the doors of the wooden ark, which housed the Torahs, and proclaim that God was their 10th man.

"Come Friday night, the place looked like Times Square," Mr. Ellman said the other day. "There might be four or five hundred people standing on the sidewalk before the services would start."

When Mr. Sacks died in 1995, the shul began to fall apart - again. The few remaining worshipers began to drift away to synagogues in Riverdale and Westchester County. The walls went damp; the donations started drying up.

For a while, Mr. Ellman tried to save the shul. He hired a guy to fix the roof, but the guy drove drunk while on vacation, he explained, and ended up in jail.

But Mr. Ellman stayed. There are a few others, too. Every month or so, they drive in from Riverdale or Staten Island or New Jersey and perform the Sabbath service in a synagogue that looks as if a hurricane had struck. On the High Holy Days, they play a tape recording of the shofar since nobody knows how to blow the special horn.

The question, of course, is why he stayed. "I don't know," Mr. Ellman said. "I guess I just got used to the place."

He can come to pray in jeans, he said, and that is nice. And he can sit where he wants to sit. There is plenty of room, after all.

"I have friends that belong to all these fancy synagogues," he said, "but I know that they would leave them in a minute if we could fix this place."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company