Grand Concourse, Grand Synagogues (1)

“Hope of Israel is our spiritual home for praying, for talking to G-d, a house for study and learning.  It also serves our community educationally, culturally and socially and throughout the year.  Very often we welcome guests from the local courts, from other parts of the city, even out of towners. Some are mourners, some have Yahrzeit (prayers in memory of a parent), still others who visit the sick at neighborhood hospitals and ask for special get-well prayers for their recovery. Believe it or not, people bring their family to watch the ball game at Yankee Stadium, and at the same time take time out to catch Maariv (evening) services at our shul. Now you can see for yourself why we must try hard to keep our synagogue alive.” -Bernard Kesten, Hope of Israel bulletin, 1983.

hopeEvery few months, I make a silent pilgrimage to Walton Avenue so that I can walk past the Hope of Israel synagogue, which closed in 2006.  Looking at the synagogue from the vantage point of the Bronx Supreme Court House, I see the continued decay of the building. A broken window. Graffiti tags.  Accumulations of garbage. Often as I pass it is evening and I wish that it was still open for Ma’ariv services or that I could turn back the clock twenty years so that I could visit my late relatives at their apartment on the Grand Concourse.  Other passersby notice the synagogue too.  They take pictures of it and ask their own questions on social media: Why did the synagogue, like hundreds of others in the Bronx, cease to function as a place of Jewish worship? What’s going to happen to the abandoned building? Why was the synagogue called Hope of Israel in the first place?

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Bernard Kesten (1900-1997), my great-uncle and active member of Hope of Israel in the eighties and nineties.

I would like to preserve and share the narratives of those who attended Hope of Israel and similar synagogues in the Concourse, Fleetwood, and Mount Eden neighborhoods. To do so, my research focuses on the growth and decline of these synagogues, memories of synagogues’ congregants and the sermons of their Rabbis.  Together, these memories reveal the different perspectives Jews in the Bronx had in regards to their Jewish identity and religious observance and are part of a larger story of urban development, neglect, decay, and renewal.

In upcoming posts, I’ll blog about the history of various synagogues and shteiblach (small congregations) including Adath Jeshurun, Chabad of the South Bronx, David Center of the Bronx, Congregation Judah Halevi, Knesseth Israel, Mount Eden Jewish Center, Nusach Sfard of the Bronx, Sephardic Jewish Center, Shearith Israel, Tifereth Beth Jacob, Temple Adath Israel and Young Israel of the Concourse. I also will include the histories of the churches serving African-Americans and Hispanic residents of the South Bronx who acquired many of these former synagogues and worship in them to this day.

While the future of the building on 843 Walton Avenue remains unclear, it is clear that its history is of some cultural importance because of its prominent location.  Although it is not landmarked and not likely to be, Hope of Israel is a microcosm of the Concourse neighborhood’s history. I hope to preserve an echo of the voice of its former congregants and their Kehillah (community) online.

Big Bronx Deli

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An installation on the Bruckner Expressway, Big Bronx Deli (2009, vernacular) is an iconoclastic yet poignant deconstruction of the neoliberal, post-modern megacity and compels the viewer to contemplate the geospatial hegemony of language and consumer culture. Note how the fading red, white and blue letters evoke the elusiveness of the American dream, chased by paradigms of capitalism such as LaVar ‘Big Baller’ Ball, Michael Bloomberg, and Marina Abramovic. But what is being served to the patrons of Big Bronx Deli? The missing upper section of the sign is open to blue skies.

Transfiguration Lutheran Church

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“If you come upon Transfiguration Lutheran Church on the corner of East 156th street and Prospect Avenue, the first thing you’ll notice are the doors, spray-painted with a bright mural. (By Tats Cru) It shows an open fire hydrant with water splashing into a baptismal font. Water brims and spills from the bow onto the grass below as new buildings rise up from the sidewalk. An arm reaches across the altar, with bread to place on a plateful of food-turkey, greens and rice for the hungry.” Reverend Heidi Neumark, leader of the church from 1984 to 2000 and author of ‘Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in The South Bronx.’ Transfiguration Church was founded in Harlem by Puerto Rican immigrants in 1923. The congregation moved to the South Bronx in 1941 and expanded in the fifties and sixties.