“A religious Jew moves into a neighborhood, the first question is ‘Where’s the shul?’ You’re in the shul more than anywhere else,” says Meir Zaibel, a congregant of Congregation Sons of Israel. “You work five days a week; you’re in shul seven days a week, morning and night.”
Sons of Israel recently celebrated its centennial, but no one is alive who remembers the exact date or circumstance of its birth in the Tremont section of the Bronx. It was a different city in the winter of 1913-14. There were farms in the Bronx, which was not yet a county. The elevated train line was less than 10 years old. But the love of Sons of Israel was being instilled; a love as intimate and intangible as family, unable to be abandoned any more than one could abandon a mother or father.
Imagine, then, young Moshe Fuchs when he was 21 years old in 1974, the only child of Sons of Israel’s Rabbi Yekusiel Fuchs, hearing fire sirens, looking out the window of his parents’ apartment, watching “my shul” burning all night and into the morning; its windows breaking, the Torah scrolls ash.
When the elder Rabbi Fuchs came to the shul in 1953, says Moshe today, “there must have been 30 shuls” in the neighborhood. Then there were none. After the fire it was beyond folly to rebuild a shul in Tremont. The neighborhood was haunted by muggings and break-ins. The old were dying. The young never moved back.
Sons of Israel found refuge in Pelham Parkway, a neighborhood slightly more than two miles north, on Cruger Avenue, in a space equivalent to a two-family house. The big cathedral-sized shul was now small. The basement, down steep and narrow stairs, held the social hall. The first floor, in what would have been the living room, became home to the ark and pews (holding maybe 150 people when packed). Two pillars stood smack in the middle of the room, obstructing views.
In 1982 the elder Rabbi Fuchs was breathing his last. “Four hours before my father died,” recalls Moshe, my father says, “Moshe, du darfst nemen care fun di shul,” you have to take care of the shul. Moshe promised.
Moshe was married and living in Queens, nowhere near the Orthodox shul, certainly not walking distance, and he was not a pulpit rabbi but a teacher. But he kept hearing “du darfst nemen,” and the Fifth Commandment, “kabed et avicha” honor they father. “So I took care of the shul,” he said. He would drive to the shul most mornings and evenings, and stay most weekends.
The shul was mostly Russian immigrants in 1913. It became more American by mid-century. Now, “punk farkert,” the opposite, it is mostly Russian again, says Rabbi Fuchs. “Many daven from a Russian-transliterated siddur. As time goes on, they sing more, they follow more.”
There is always a minyan (as many as 80 on a Shabbos, 15 to 20 weekdays), but the shul long ago surrendered on collecting anyone’s membership dues. People pay what they can. The rabbi somehow raises the money to pay the electric bill and maintenance. Many of the congregants need a hand. Rabbi Fuchs — who doesn’t take a salary — helps people find affordable housing. He helps them find clothes. Every week, his “Tomchei Shabbos” project distributes 135 two-meal Shabbat packages to the poor. “I have to make sure the place is kept clean; that there’s a kiddush on Shabbos; that no one goes hungry on Shabbos,” he said.
Every other week, says the rabbi, “we serve a full Shabbos lunch: gefilte fish, chicken, tzimmes, kugel, chulent. But the people are here to daven. When there’s no lunch, we have only slightly less people. My chevra aren’t schnorrers [freeloaders],” he said. “Some people, I have to force them to go downstairs for the lunch. And they say thank you for everything.”
“The shul is heimische [homey],” says Avi Glasser, an “American” who often leads davening.
The colors of the shul are faded, muted by age and wear, but all the more heimische for that. Almost every inch of the walls is covered with posters of rabbinic sages, inspirational phrases, and memorial plaques — Malka Edelman, Dec. 3, 1903; Aaron Sack, Nov. 19, 1920 — that testify to the neighborhood’s relative antiquity. Many of the yarhtzeit plaques were inherited from other shuls in the Bronx that themselves deserve a yarhtzeit plaque.
Fred Sugarman, an associate dean of student affairs at Yeshiva University, met Rabbi Fuchs several years ago. “He invited me to come by the shul,” says Sugarman, “and I saw the work he did.” Sugarman, who is also chair of Riverdale Jewish Center’s board, now drives every Sunday morning to Sons of Israel with two dozen bagels for the breakfast after davening.
Nearly a decade ago, Sugarman helped get a group of volunteers started, mostly students from SAR, the local day school, who would occasionally meet at 7 a.m. on a Shabbat morning to walk the four-plus miles to Sons of Israel. “Our kids led the services,” says Sugarman, “and then served the lunch. It was beautiful, our [west] side of the Bronx, which is now the stronger side, honoring an older neighborhood, in what used to be the stronger side, showing our respect.” The group still occasionally makes the trek.
And so do members of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who started a Shabbat morning walk to Sons of Israel.
Rabbi Moshe Drelich, who describes himself as “a Judaic Studies rebbe” at SAR High School (and who was among those honored at the Sons of Israel centennial dinner), says he would tell his students as they walked, “how important it is to respect this community. Look, we come from a wealthier community, with full synagogues, and we should see an older shul, but no less beautiful. These are immigrants, deprived of their Jewish roots by the Soviet Union. Rabbi Fuchs is helping them take possession of the Yiddishkeit that belongs to them. It is important for us to give back, to understand that we are part of a greater whole; to support Rabbi Fuchs, who sacrificed so much, his family, his personal time, to be so dedicated to these people,” he said.
Pelham Parkway seems safe, but with just enough reason to be afraid. People tell stories. A few weeks ago, a Jewish woman in the neighborhood was attacked by two masked men on her walk from the subway. Evening services are finished by dusk so congregants can walk home before the thin light completely fades.
“Look,” says Rabbi Fuchs, “there are those who say that Pelham Parkway is in the eighth inning, and I know it. From 20 shuls we’re down to two with a daily minyan”; the other shul, slightly less than a mile away, being the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway Jewish Center (in 2010 the Young Israel moved out of its building and into the Jewish Center). A little further away, the Young Israel of Astor Gardens struggles for a weekly minyan; their office telephone goes unanswered.
“Some say Sons of Israel is dying but as long as the lights are on,” says Rabbi Drelich, “and they have a minyan morning and night, that’s plenty alive.”
“We’re holding steady,” says Rabbi Fuchs, “but I don’t see too many people moving in. I walk in the Botanical Gardens on Shabbos, I cry. It’s so beautiful and nobody’s here.”
As Zaibel, his congregant, says, “Rabbi Fuchs, he cares for us like family. He worries about the congregation.”
He promised his father.