Twilight of the Gods: The South Bronx's Abandoned Synagogues

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In 1755 a Jewish man named Philip Isaacs died. He is remembered today only because he was the first Jew to settle down in the territory that was to later become known as the Bronx. But Isaacs was no trendsetter, and it would take another 150 years or so before any significant number of Jews would follow him into that borough. Once they started coming, however, they wouldn't quit. The Bronx became New York City's promised land for Jews. You can see that in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, where Al Jolson warbles to his Jewish mother that, when he makes it, he'll buy her a big apartment up on the Grand Concourse.

During the early part of the 20th century, the Jewish migration into the Bronx was so prolific that by the end of WWII there were more than 600,000 Jews living there. They were the largest ethnic group in the borough and made up almost half of the Bronx's total population. Fifty years later their number has dwindled to a mere 80,000 souls. In one of the greatest New York resettlements ever, more than 500,000 Jews have moved on. When the exodus began in the 1960s, the media labeled it "white flight." That was a facile tag, as Jews in the Bronx were just doing what Americans have always done?moving up and out, toward the beckoning green suburbs of Westchester and Rockland. Today the Bronx?particularly the South Bronx?is a district full of huge, cheap prewar apartments, and it's a good bet that soon the hipsters and artists who are being squeezed out of Williamsburg, DUMBO and Greenpoint and claim to be looking for "raw space" will head for it. It's raw all right, and there's plenty of space, and as any Manhattanite who's ever taken the subway to Yankee Stadium will know, it's very close to Manhattan.

In 2001's Bronx, most of the Jewish population lives in Riverdale or Co-op City, or around the Pelham Pkwy. In the South Bronx, where Jews once reigned, there are only a handful of survivors left. They're the forgotten ones, the people who've been left behind. You see them sometimes: ancient wraiths walking the streets of a hard place, wrapped in old cloth coats. They keep moving out of fear, like sharks, who die if they remain stationary. Recently I watched one old Jewish man beat it down the Concourse near 167th St. He held his moth-eaten camel-hair coat closed tight with one hand, like it was body armor. His lips moved up and down like he was chewing the air, and I knew he was tasting fear. The elderly are entitled to fear the Bronx. If there's a hell on Earth, it's got to be growing old in the South Bronx.

At one time the Bronx was home to an estimated 700 synagogues. Today, now that the borough's seen half a million Jews leave it, that number is down to 34. The borough is littered with former synagogues. Some of these have morphed into churches, government buildings or grocery stores. Others couldn't be sold, and sit forlorn on blocks no Jew has walked down in years. Their doors are chained shut, their walls graffitied.

Recently I visited an abandoned synagogue on Morris Ave. and 196th St., formerly the Beth Shraga Synagogue. It closed in 1999. On the corner a group of Hispanic teenagers hung out, eyeing anybody who walked by. I stood in front of the closed temple and contemplated the Star of David carved into the stone above the chained gold doors. The brick front of the temple was scarred with graffiti, and a small metal sign hung by a window, announcing that it was for sale.

I asked a middle-aged Hispanic man who would give his name only as Dave what he thought about the abandoned temple.

"There are no Jews left. When I first moved here in the 70s there were quite a few of them, but most of them were old and they have been gone for some time now. I'm sure there are a few left, but I don't see them anymore. There is that old-age home for Jews up on the Concourse, so I guess that is who came here. Maybe they all died."

I left Dave and went down Morris Ave. looking at the wood frame homes that line the block. It was night. It's darker in the Bronx than in Manhattan. I am not sure if there are fewer streetlights, or if the night blankets the borough with a thicker cover than it does the rest of New York. But it's darker.

Over the phone I later talked with Elliot Markson, 58, a retired schoolteacher and now a Brooklyn resident, about abandoned synagogues in the Bronx. Markson is a bit of an expert on the subject, as his father was the principal of the Hebrew school at the Adath Israel Synagogue on 169th St. and the Grand Concourse. Markson was bar mitzvahed there in 1955?as was Bronx serial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, in 1966. The temple was closed in the 70s, Markson thinks, and is now a Seventh-Day Adventist church.

"I recently went back there, and they haven't changed the temple much. It looks pretty much the same, only now it's not Jewish. But back in the 50s the Bronx was a Jewish stronghold. The building I lived in was so Jewish that the one Irish Catholic family that lived there was said to be 'Cathlish,' because we couldn't conceive of a religion that didn't end in ish. Back then, on the high holy days, the Grand Concourse was the place to be seen. It seemed like the whole neighborhood was dressed up and going to the temples."

I spent a recent evening driving around the South Bronx in my car, searching out dead synagogues. It doesn't get much bleaker than that. Mid-January, with the dirty snow crusted over the trash in the gutters, and human shadows loping along under the razor-wire fencing. I turned up the car's heater, and thought about what it must have been like at the last service held at the South Bronx's last synagogue. When there were no longer enough of the faithful left for a minyan, and the cantor was packing up after singing his last note. And the rabbi snuffing the candles, cutting off the power that connects the place to the eternal light, and thinking of the more than half a million Jews who once called the Bronx their home. It's amazing to think that, as young man, the rabbi must have thought that, in the South Bronx, his community had found a home. But he carries the Torah scrolls down the aisle and sees that they've rolled up the ark curtain and that the bima's been shipped to a synagogue in Westchester. He chains the temple doors shut and leaves.

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