“It gets late early” in the Bronx, said Yogi Berra. The Bronx had more Jews than Israel in 1948, and likely more shuls than Jerusalem, but, within 15 years, those who stayed, stayed too late. The borough “changed.”
Like Berra’s patch of left field, a grassy sunlit aureole in the dying of the day, awaiting the shadows’ creep, the Jewish West Bronx allowed itself the temerity, the audacity, to dare night to fall. Even as scores of shuls were closing to the east, in the West Bronx new synagogues were being built that would last forever, or so went the conceit.
Two “Jewish Centers” built facilities almost simultaneously, multi-storied buildings with plenty of classrooms and pews for hundreds: the Riverdale Jewish Center in 1957 and the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center in 1965, two shuls close enough to share a ZIP code (10463). At the time, the Van Cortlandt congregation was the larger of the two, but what did anyone know?
Riverdale is now doing fine, whereas the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center recently announced it may soon close forever, perhaps by autumn, unable to pay its electric and heating bills.
The Jews of the Van Cortlandt section were once legendary, a diverse Jewish neighborhood that fancied itself “a proletarian paradise.” The Van Cortlandt Jewish Center was founded in 1927 by Jews who were moving into the equally new Amalgamated Housing co-ops, an 11-building complex, heavily shaded with trees and gardens, operated by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, when that union was overwhelmingly Jewish. The shul was given space on the ground floor in one of the buildings. Nearby were the 15 buildings of the neo-Tudor “Sholom Aleichem houses,” named, of course, for the great Yiddish writer who lived his last years nearby, at 968 Kelly Street. The Sholom Aleichem houses were once described in the Daily News, years later, as a “shtetl,” a “close-knit community … of successful scientists and artists,” home to the neighborhood’s pride, Bess Myerson when she became the highly celebrated first (and only) Jew to be crowned Miss America in 1945.
Robert Gillman, today the synagogue’s president, was bar mitzvahed in the Orthodox shul, back in 1946. Those were the days of great Jewish passions, conversations having the intensity of a waterfront brawl. “It was very Jewish,” remembers Gillman, but for some “only the [Yiddish] language was important.” There were religious Jews, Zionists, anarchists, communists and socialists. Many didn’t care for religion at all. As a boy, Gillman went around raising money for the Jewish National Fund in the Amalgamated hallways, only to be told, he recalls, “Here’s a dollar,” for Israel, “and here’s a match; go throw it in the shul.”
Nevertheless, the shul was wildly successful by any measure, and by 1965, when it opened its new four-story building at 3880 Sedgwick Ave., it had more than 750 members and nearly 400 students in its Hebrew school. By comparison, it was more successful than two successful synagogues in Riverdale and the Upper West Side are now. Lincoln Square Synagogue, which a few weeks ago inaugurated a new $51 million building, has around 500 member-units, and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which recently completed a $12 million renovation, currently has around 600.
In 1965 the whole city seemed to celebrate Van Cortlandt Jewish Center’s opening and its optimism. Dr. Alan Rosenthal, then a young boy growing up in the Amalgamated, remembers Mayor John Lindsay, then promoting “Fun City,” present at the shul’s opening, as blue-and-white Israeli flags were flying all along Sedgwick Avenue.
Now the shul has fewer than 100 members. The children of the Amalgamated have mostly moved away. The mostly non-Jewish newcomers couldn’t tell Sholom Aleichem from, well, whoever the heck Sedgwick was. The Sholom Aleichem houses went into foreclosure in 2011, cited for hundreds of housing violations, from broken sinks to leaking roofs.
The shul’s expenses are modest: basic building maintenance, the utilities bill and a part-time salary for Rabbi David Borenstein. Yet the shul has only kept afloat by leasing one floor to a senior center, while leasing (at much more lucrative terms) two other floors to an annex of a nearby public school. But the Department of Education did not renew its lease this year; its $100,000 annual rent had made up the bulk of the synagogue’s revenues.
When the shul was young, and times were good, congregants gave generously to Jewish causes here and in Israel and kept the shul in clover. Today “most of the people who were moneyed, moved out; contributions are down,” says synagogue president Robert Gillman, a pharmacist. He owns a drugstore in the east Bronx, “but the store is doing so well I’m making nothing on it.”
It’s not that the Van Cortlandt area changed for the worse. The shul is on a handsome, curving road, bracketed by a public library on one side and a Chinese restaurant and medical offices on the other. Crime is low, according to the 50th Precinct. In 2007, The New York Times described the neighborhood as “a serene enclave of quaint homes, winding streets and abundant trees.” It remains an attractive option for middle-class Jewish families, with affordable housing and, in nearby Riverdale, kosher shopping and day schools. The Bronx High School of Science is nearby. But the neighborhood has no eruv, and these days that’s a deal breaker for young Orthodox families who, without an eruv, are unable to use strollers or carry necessities to the park on Shabbat.
Rabbi Jacob Sodden, the shul’s rabbi from 1961 until his passing in 2007, never built that eruv, but he told the Daily News in 2006, “All these years, I’ve been trying to tell people not to fall for the glamour of Riverdale.” But Riverdale had an eruv, plus several rabbis over the years who were famous throughout the Jewish world. Meanwhile, Rabbi Sodden remained on his pulpit deep into old age, with one congregant confiding, “Let’s just say that Rabbi Sodden didn’t have the enthusiasm he had when he started.”
Back in Van Cortlandt’s heyday, its lack of eruv was not unusual — the Upper West Side and Riverdale didn’t have them either. While setting one up now wouldn’t be particularly difficult, the regular maintenance and other logistics are beyond the scope of a shul now run with skeletal leadership.
The Jewish population began to slip, slightly but significantly. No dominant group has replaced it; the neighborhood remains middle class, a mix of different ethnicities and religions. According to the new UJA-Federation of New York neighborhoods study, in the last decade, the Jewish population declined 7 percent (to 20,100) in Riverdale and Kingsbridge, including Van Cortlandt. (The total Jewish population of the Bronx actually rose, from 45,100 in 2002 to 53,900 today; the growth is in the Northeast Bronx, largely in intermarried and biracial households where respondents identify as “partially Jewish.”) In the Riverdale/Kingsbridge area, only 14 percent of Jews identify as Orthodox (even as the Orthodox Van Cortlandt Jewish Center is the only synagogue in the neighborhood). Where 54 percent of the Jews in the neighborhood were synagogue members a decade ago, the percentage is down to 42 percent. The Yiddishist secular Workmen’s Circle community has dwindled, too. A large freestanding Workmen’s Circle building, a few blocks from the shul, is now entirely occupied by a non-Jewish school.
The two closest shuls are the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway, struggling for a minyan one mile to the east, and the Kingsbridge Center of Israel, experiencing a revival, one mile to the west.
Gillman, the Van Cortlandt shul president, says, “most members would prefer that the shul explore a move within the neighborhood, to a much smaller space, with a lot less expenses, where we could continue to hold services. We have some options. We haven’t given up yet.” He’s looking for help. “How much help, we can’t tell yet, because there’s no help.”
Rabbi Borenstein says the VCJC still maintains, almost always, a daily minyan, 40 to 50 on Shabbat, at least 100 for Yizkor days, and around 200 for the High Holidays. About 15 teens come on Shabbat afternoons to NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth), which meets in the shul.
To Gillman and other congregants, the shul is not just a building, but the essence of their memory, a collection of familiar patterns. Gillman’s daughter, Marcy Gillman-Harris, chair of the fundraising committee, went to the Hebrew school and was married in the sanctuary. “This was my second home, my second family,” she says. “The people are friendly, caring about each other, caring about keeping the shul going.” She remembers where the disappeared once sat in the empty pews.
The shul’s next fundraiser, says Gillman-Harris, will be on Sunday, Jan. 27, a $40 event featuring a kosher Chinese buffet lunch, a pick-your-prize raffle and a variety show, with a magician and a singer. “I’ve heard he sounds amazingly like Frank Sinatra!” she writes in the shul bulletin.
Last year’s big fundraiser raised $12,000. She admits, “We’re never going to raise [what we need] from these events.”
With it all, Gillman-Harris fears the area is “declining, steadily,” and all too soon.
It’s getting late so early.