Diversity On The Hudson

Diversity On The Hudson

A tolerant, inclusive vibe defines Riverdale.

There are plenty of Jewish neighborhoods around New York where the community tends toward a certain religious outlook, a predominant level of observance or a majority ethnic leaning.

And then there is Riverdale. Leafy and elegant, its stately Tudors and postwar high-rises perched along the banks of the Hudson, this corner of the northwest Bronx is cherished by residents for its religious and ethnic diversity — both within and outside of the Jewish community.

Exhibit A may well be Rabba Sara Hurwitz. Lest readers suspect a typo, “I’m a full member of the clergy, part of the rabbinic staff,” affirms Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — a congregation identified by its leadership as “open Orthodox,” with all the inclusivity and liberalism that implies. Since she is a woman, Hurwitz, the mother of three young children, spells the title with an “a.”

She is currently the only rabba in the area, but that may change: Hurwitz oversees a program that trains other women to be spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. And while her role has invited some controversy, as the rabba acknowledges, it is also widely celebrated.

That, according to Asher Abramovitz, principal of the Kinneret Day School, is what makes Riverdale special: “There’s a level of comfort in Riverdale, less of that judgmental approach. You can see a woman with a head covering talking to a woman who’s totally non-Orthodox and they seem to have lots of things in common. It’s a very inclusive kind of community.”

Rabba Hurwitz concurs. “This is a community that attracts a range of people — even a range of Orthodox people,” she said. “It’s very warm and family-oriented, a place where you can settle in.”

Exhibit B is the way non-Orthodox synagogues have flourished here in recent years, even as Riverdale overall has grown more visibly and demographically Orthodox. In contrast to so many other Jewish communities where a once-thriving secular community has largely given way to an Orthodox mainstream, Riverdale has a thriving new Reform synagogue — Congregation Shaarei Shalom, which opened in 2006 — and its Conservative congregation is growing fast.

At the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel, Executive Director Eric Nussbaum credits a confluence of factors for a recent surge in membership, to about 430 families. “It’s a wide swath of young people with children, retirees, empty nesters, couples, people who have relocated here — a nice broad spectrum,” he said.

“We have a very strong JTS connection, so I think a lot of people find their way through that,” Nussbaum added, referring to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative institution a few miles south on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “There’s an affinity with the Conservative movement that’s very strong, so when you have people moving up and settling here, there’s strong word of mouth. People are drawn by the energy of the community.”

That energy powers an array of vibrant Orthodox congregations, including the Riverdale Jewish Center, Young Israel Ohab Zedek, and Chabad of Riverdale, as well as the Reform Temple of Riverdale and another Conservative congregation, Tehillah. The latter was recently established by members of the Manhattan stalwart B’nai Jeshurun, reflecting the strong Upper West Side sensibility that many newcomers bring to Riverdale.

Other major Jewish institutions include the Riverdale Y, with its wide range of programming, and the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a senior facility whose 900 residents enjoy an array of living options, as well as a first-class art museum.

But perhaps the newest addition to the Jewish scene is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal-oriented Modern Orthodox rabbinical school that relocated in January from the Upper West Side. Founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who also presides over the Hebrew Institute, the yeshiva is now housed within the newly expanded Institute. Though the school remains formally independent from the synagogue, HIR Associate Rabbi Steven Exler excitedly described how his congregants benefit from intellectual exchange with the 35 rabbinical students, as well as the yeshiva’s excellent library.

In June, the Hebrew Institute officially unveiled its larger facility: 24,000 square feet of new space complement a renovation of its existing structures, with new areas for classrooms, offices, prayer and special events. “To be the kind of real community center we want to be and aim to be, we needed a new building,” said Rabbi Exler. He reports the congregation now numbers about 750 families.

As befits a family-oriented area, Riverdale has a variety of attractive educational options. These range from well-regarded public schools to secular private schools like Horace Mann and Riverdale Country Day to Jewish day schools, the most prominent of which are SAR Academy and Kinneret. SAR Academy and SAR High School, which together serve about 1,300 students, are Modern Orthodox and draw students from around the region. Kinneret, which goes through eighth grade, is officially non-denominational, with families that run the observancy gamut, according to Abramovitz: “We’re very inclusive, and we’re very involved with accommodating and working with the needs of Orthodox families.”

Riverdale’s abundant, varied housing stock, relatively gentle prices and lower-than-Manhattan day school tuition “make this an attractive place to live, financially,” added Abramowitz, who has seen a steady increase of newcomers from Manhattan. “Even more than last year,” he said. “The shuls are booming; there’s a new building coming up every couple of blocks, making for a very competitive rental market.” Housing ranges from grand Tudor mansions on leafy, suburban streets in the prestigious Fieldston neighborhood to pre- and postwar apartment buildings in a stately brick style.

On a practical level, residents rave about the area’s convenience and wealth of resources. Riverdale is just minutes from Manhattan, with a speedy commute to Grand Central via Metro-North Railroad and subway service on the red line. Yet it is equally close to New Jersey, which lies just over the George Washington Bridge, and to points north via the Henry Hudson Parkway. At Kinneret, Abramovitz said he has noticed an increase in families whose parents commute in different directions and move to Riverdale for its central location. “There’s been a shift in jobs — parents who used to work closer to home are now working up in Westchester, or you have a father working in New Jersey and a mother up in Connecticut.”

They may work elsewhere, but Riverdale residents have all the shopping they need right at home. The selection of kosher eateries and stores has expanded in recent years, with some of the most notable growth in North Riverdale, where Skyview Liquors anchors a bustling Jewish-oriented shopping center.

Rabbi Exler, who has been at the Hebrew Institute for two years, said Riverdale is an easy place for ex-Manhattanites to feel at home. “I live a 10-minute walk from the Number One train, so I have immediate access to the city without thinking twice,” he said. “At the same time, I have all these parks — Van Cortlandt Park, Wave Hill. There are so many places you can walk through and see the Hudson; I love being on the water. It’s a great blend of urban and suburban.”

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