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.

Community Center of Israel

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Mid Century Modern decoration of a Pelham Gardens synagogue. Community Center of Israel was founded in the fifties and expanded in 1961. It’s rather pareve (bland), not overtly religious name hints at the fact that many of the suburban synagogues opened for the Baby Boomer generation framed themselves as much as community centers as places of worship. (Israel, as in the Children of Israel, was sometimes used as an alternative phrase for “Jewish.” With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the use of the phrase became somewhat archaic.)

When I was a student at Bar-Ilan University, I had lunch with a roommate’s father. It turns out that he grew up in the Bronx and went to this synagogue before his family moved to Miami. Later I found out he was part of a Facebook group of former synagogue members who enjoyed reminiscing about the Community Center of Israel. Unfortunately, there no longer seems to be enough of a congregation to support the Community Center of Israel and maintain it’s rather large building. It is a matter of time before it is repurposed, perhaps as a charter school or cultural center.

Beth Hamidrash Hagadol

 

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An exterior view of the former Beth Hamidrash Hagadol synagogue. Located in Morrisania, it is a remnant of an area that was redeveloped when the Forest Houses were constructed in the mid-fifties.
Beth Hamidrash is Hebrew for the house of study, specifically Talmudic study. Gadol simply means large. Jewish immigrants, especially from Lithuania often established synagogues with this name, a reminder of how they organized themselves in the ‘old country.’ The congregation was founded in 1904, and the building dates from 1912. An inscription in the cornice lists the equivalent Hebrew year. Sharon Baptist Church, which if I remember correctly was a branch of a church founded in Harlem, bought the building in 1957. 

 

Adath Jeshurun

 

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A Hebrew inscription in front of the former Adath Jeshurun synagogue reads “This is none other than the house of God.” (Genesis 28:17)

 
An excerpt from my research on Bronx synagogues: Adath Jeshurun (loosely translated from Hebrew as ‘community of the upright’) was founded in 1932 by residents of the  neighborhood and former members of a synagogue of the same name in East Harlem, itself a branch of the Lower East Side congregation known today as the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The congregation acquired space in an empty supermarket on East 165th Street and gradually bought neighboring stores as the synagogue grew. Completed in 1936, Adath Jeshurun’s building was built into the incline of 165th Street between Grand Concourse and Gerard Avenue.
According to Victor B. Geller, a congregant who attended the synagogue as a teenager, Adath Jeshurun “appealed to older…Yiddish speaking people.” Its Rabbis included Idel Braun, David Hollander, Ascher M. Yager, Abraham Gross, Harold Z. Rappaport and from 1951 to 1963, Melech Shachter. Born in the region of Bukovina, Schachter learned in the yeshiva in Vinnytsia (Vizhnitz), before coming to the United States as a fifteen-year-old. Rabbi Shachter was acclaimed as a scholar of Jewish law. His son Herschel is a prominent Rabbi to this day.
In 1975, the synagogue’s building was sold to the Church of God of Prophecy.  This Pentecostal congregation was founded by Ronald George Thompson in 1947 and had previously worshiped at sites in Harlem and the South Bronx. The church remains active in the community today and hosts a soup kitchen for the Momentum Project, which “provides supportive services and meals… especially to those living with HIV/AIDS or other chronic illness.”

Burnside Jewish Center

 

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Residents of Morris Heights founded the Burnside Jewish Center in 1926 and named it for one of the main streets in the neighborhood. However, the synagogue is located on Grand Avenue, home to my grandfather and his family in the mid-thirties and Jennifer Lopez, before her family moved to her ‘block’ in Castle Hill. Rabbi Leo H. Shayovich, born in Transylvania, led the Burnside Jewish Center for decades. In 1975, BJC was sold to the Mennonite Church. The Ten Commandments, often a motif in synagogue architecture remains at the building’s entrance.

 

Beekman Avenue Synagogue

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Mott Haven is best known as a Hispanic and once Irish neighborhood, but it also had a Jewish community from the turn of the 20th Century until the late sixties which had several synagogues of various sizes.
The most visible remnant of the community is the former “Beekman Avenue Synagogue.” Shared by two congregations, B’nai Israel (Children of Israel) and Chevra Shomrey Shabbat (Sabbath Observers), it was built in 1926, during the height of Jewish migration from the Lower East Side and Harlem to the Bronx.
Puerto Ricans brought their own Christian denominations which sometimes included religious syncretism to the South Bronx. One of these groups, the Congregacion De Yahweh purchased the Beekman Avenue Synagogue in 1971 and has maintained it’s Jewish insignia rather than erasing it.