Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Bronx Synagogue Survey
Bronx Historical Society Sponsors Survey of Synagogues
by Seymour Perlin
Former Montefiore Congregation (now United Church). 764 Hewitt Place, Bronx, New York., Daumer & Co., architects, 1906. Photo: Samuel Gruber, 1993.
New York's Bronx County Historical Society is sponsoring the publication of a book about the synagogues of the South Bronx. Seymour Perlin, author of the study provided the following project summary. - editor
In 1940, there were approximately 260 synagogues and other Jewish institutions and more than 300,000 Jews in the South Bronx. Following World War II, Jews increasingly moved to the north sections of the Bronx and to the suburbs. The result has been that in recent decades, synagogues and Jewish institutions in the South Bronx have been abandoned, demolished or put to other uses. Because most of the Jews have moved out of the area, there is a need to preserve the Jewish history of this area before it disappears. This photographic and historical survey of buildings depicts what happened to the synagogues when the Jews left.
Today, there are four surviving synagogues in the South Bronx.
* The Daughters of Jacob Synagogue, Findlay Ave., is used by residents of the home. It is not open to the public.
* Congregation Mount Horab at 1024 Stebbins Avenue (now Reverend Polite Avenue) has a congregation of Black Jews.
* The Intervale Jewish Center at 1028 Intervale Avenue (the subject of Jack Kugalmas's book and film Miracle on Intervale Avenue) is still open with barely enough Jews for Saturday services.
* Congregation Hope of Israel at 843 Walton Avenue (behind the Bronx County Courthouse) still holds services. Much of its support comes from people who work in the courthouse.
Because many synagogues had several congregational names over the years, the survey photographs are organized by location. Also, people invariably recalled a synagogue's location rather than its name. The photographs illustrate the current condition of surviving buildings.
The information listed about each synagogue photographed includes the synagogue name, location, date of its organization (where available), and what is presently on the site. In the section following the photographs is a list of 161 other synagogues, Young Men's Hebrew Associations, Jewish Community Centers, and Jewish orphanages that once existed in the South Bronx. The same information for each building is provided.
A breakdown of the present use of each synagogue site follows:
Churches (78); empty lots (54); public buildings (includes schools, city projects, a correctional facility, etc.) (38); private houses (27); private agencies (10 in original buildings); businesses (13); replaced by an industrial park (9); demolished for erection of Cross-Bronx Expressway (7); synagogues (4); new homes (5); city parks (5); abandoned (4); in presently inhabited apartment buildings (3); presently utilized office building (3); parish house (1); abandoned apartment building (1). Because of changes in ethnic, racial and religious make-up of the South Bronx, the churches have either Hispanic or African-American congregations. There are no churches with predominately white congregations. Of the 78 churches formerly synagogues, 56 have mostly or all African-American congregations and 22 have Hispanic congregations.
As the research progressed, the purpose of the project was broadened. Synagogues are only buildings made of brick and mortar. People of the congregation make a synagogue come to life. There was a need for a human dimension. Letters were sent to numerous Jewish publications in America asking former residents of the South Bronx to send personal impressions of the synagogues they attended. Responses have been incorporated into the book.
For example, Martin Smith relates this anecdote about his Bar Mitzvah in 1945. His mother wanted him to record his bar mitzvah speech and send it to his father who was serving in the army in Hawaii. There were no cassette recorders in those days, but there was a store on the Grand Concourse, that made disc records. When they arrived at the store, the owner told Martin to go to the booth at the rear of the store, keeping his back to the street so there would be no distractions and present the speech as he did in the synagogue. As Martin ended the speech, he heard loud applause. Turning around he saw a crowd of people in front of the store. The owner had turned on the loudspeaker so that everyone on the Grand Concourse could hear the speech.
The Bronx County Historical Society is seeking funds to help underwrite publication of this study. To make tax-deductible contributions to BCHS, or for more information, contact Dr. Lloyd Ultan, BCHS, 3309 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx, NY 10458.
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