A native of the Washington, D.C., area and a resident of Washington Heights for the last several years during his studies at the Yeshiva University rabbinical school, Rabbi Herschel Hartz became interested several months ago in reports he heard that a growing number of Jews were moving into the nearby Inwood neighborhood.
Until recently, there had been no Jewish organizations or activities in the area, which forms the northern tip of Manhattan.
Rabbi Hartz, who was ordained in May, told himself someone should do something.
That something is Inwood Jews (inwoodjews.com), an outreach organization he founded earlier this year to sponsor a series of educational and social events.
“It’s not a shul — yet,” he says. “It’s events.”
So far Inwood Jews has sponsored a Shavuot cheesecake giveaway, a Lag b’Omer barbecue and a “drum circle” get-together, all in Inwood Hill Park. This week: “quasi-davening” in the park, with lots of stories and singing, on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.
On Sukkot, he pedaled around the area with a sukkah attached to his bike.
So far, several dozen people have attended the events, attracted by an online, social media campaign orchestrated by Rabbi Hartz, and by colorful posters displayed in the windows of local stores.
So far, he’s operating on a shoestring budget, with donations from sympathetic friends. “I’m getting $100 here, $100 there.”
“I think it’s important to bring some Jewish spirit to this neighborhood,” says the rabbi, who is 28 and single.
“I want to build a center for Inwood Jews so we can be a gathering point for Jewish events without traveling elsewhere,” he says in an introduction on the Inwood Jews website.
Inwood Jews has no denominational affiliation, but reflects Rabbi Hartz’s background as a YU student and a baal teshuvah who identifies with the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement. “I have the Chabad spirit, but the efficiency of YU.”
Without a building of his own, Rabbi Hartz meets interested members of the community in impromptu settings like parks and cafés.
Most of Inwood Jews’ participants, like many of the Jews who have moved in recent years to that neighborhood and to Washington Heights, are young, ranging from recent college graduates to folks in their 40s.
One demographic Jewish outlier, Ann Gregory, a retired professor who recently moved back to New York after 32 years away, bought an apartment in Inwood “due to the reasonableness of the cost.”
She says she is looking forward to taking part in Inwood Jews events. “I have been hoping we could develop a Jewish community in Inwood,” Gregory says. “I am accustomed to small Jewish communities — having grown up in Lawrence, Kan., where the Jewish community consisted of around 15 families and 100 students at the university.”
Inwood, in the shadow of Washington Heights’ established Jewish community, is unlikely to develop into a major center of Jewish life, Rabbi Hartz says. But with an estimated 2,000 Jews, it is likely to be able to support the ongoing religious and cultural events he would like to lead.
Slipping into a kind of Yiddish vernacular, the rabbi says, “There is what to work with in Inwood.”