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In New Year, A Last Chance

In New Year, A Last Chance

On a small table on the bima, across from a locked Torah ark, next to an English-Hebrew chumash, lies an Ezras Torah Luach for 5763, the Jewish year that ends this month. The palm-sized luach booklet is a synagogue’s annual guide to Torah readings, candle-lighting times and other religious details.
Jason Rosenberger hopes he’ll need one for 5764.
Rosenberger, a CPA by vocation, is by avocation president of the Inwood Hebrew Congregation, which is believed to be the neighborhood’s last remaining synagogue. The neighborhood’s Jewish population has declined in recent decades, he said, nearby shuls have closed and attendance at the Conservative Hebrew Congregation’s weekly Shabbat services has dipped to the low single figures, and Rosenberger, a lifelong member of the 84-year-old congregation who regularly leads Saturday morning services, is leading a one-man crusade to keep the doors open past the upcoming holiday season.
That’s door, a side-entrance to the Iglesia Adventista del Septimo Dia church. The synagogue sold the eight-decade-old building, on an Inwood side street, to the church six years ago, and the congregation now rents the basement meeting hall.
"We’re tenants now," Rosenberger says, sitting at a table he set up in the empty basement’s wooden floor one recent afternoon. "It’s a perpetual lease."
The room, where Hebrew school lessons were given years ago and where the Brotherhood and Sisterhood once met, shows signs of a recent church meal: uncollected litter. The congregation’s prayer books and Bibles are locked in a bookcase; a high-backed chair on the bima, formerly a place of honor for a rabbi or synagogue president, is covered by a sheet of plastic; rows of simple chairs are stacked against the walls.
"We set up 10 seats on Shabbos: that’s it," Rosenberger says. An older crowd comes these days. "The youngest person here is 60, maybe." A recently hired cantor, who serves at the synagogue only on Shabbat and holidays, leads a discussion of the parashah each week; without a minyan, there’s no leining of the Torah. The congregation hasn’t had a full-time rabbi for two decades.
Rosenberger tells of years, ending in the 1950s, when the High Holy Days were standing room only in the sanctuary upstairs: about 1,500 worshippers.
In recent years, the shul gets no more than a few dozen even on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
This year, he hopes, he’ll get a bigger holiday crowd, and a younger one. The shul will offer free tickets, announced in newspaper articles and ads.
This year, he hopes, won’t be the congregation’s last. "We need people to keep us open," Rosenberger says.
When he was growing up in Inwood (his parents lived across the street from the synagogue) the neighborhood was ethnically mixed. "It was almost 50 percent Jewish, 50 percent Irish." By the 1960s younger, affluent Jews moved out, and older Jews died. The area became the home of Hispanic immigrants, first from Puerto Rico, then from the Dominican Republic.
The estimated Jewish population of Inwood, a mile-long area of modest apartment houses between Washington Heights and the Harlem River, "is still thousands," but half its former figure, says Martin Englisher, executive vice president of the YMHA of Washington Heights and Inwood.
But most of Inwood’s new Jews are unaffiliated, says Englisher.
The neighborhood’s last remaining synagogue has several strikes against it, he says: a Conservative congregation holds little interest for nearby Orthodox communities, Washington Heights to the south and Riverdale to the north; a traditional synagogue, which at one time sponsored a separate minyan with separate seating, won’t attract liberal-minded Jews; an institution composed of the elderly is not a magnet for the young; and a shul holding services in a basement won’t appeal to anyone.
"It’s very difficult," says Englisher, who recently gave a lecture at the synagogue. "Losing shuls is not a good thing. It takes away an alternative."
"There aren’t that many Jewish young people in the area who are interested in coming to a shul," says Samuel Zucker, a member of the congregation for 40 years who joined another synagogue two years ago.
Drawn by the area’s lower housing costs, a new Yuppie generation has moved to Inwood in recent years.
"The effort now is to get young blood in [the synagogue]," says Marvin Wexler, the congregation’s recording secretary. "We know there are Jews in the area. The area has artists and entertainers moving in. Amongst them are many Jews."
"A lot of the newcomers," Rosenberger says, "don’t know we’re here. We don’t know who the Jews are, because there aren’t any Jewish stores here." No kosher butchers or bakeries where notices can be hung.
Rumors of the congregation’s demise spread after the Hebrew Congregation sold its building, he says. "We’re not closed. We’re willing to stay open. We want to stay here."
Proceeds from the building’s sales ("It’s in the six figures," Rosenberger says) pay its short-term bills: rent, an apartment for the visiting cantor, the occasional holiday party. The congregation can get by, financially, for several years.
What it needs, long-term, is people.
"I have to have at least a Shabbos minyan," Rosenberger says. "I need 10." Ideally, he would prefer 15 to 20 worshippers each Shabbat.
Rosenberger says he will judge the congregation’s future by attendance at holiday services this month. "We’ll be open for sure through Sukkot."
He says he’s "very sad" that the institution’s outlook is so precarious. "It’s my shul. I grew up here. I was bar mitzvahed here. My heart is here."
And the luach for 5764?
Rosenberger took a leap of faith. "It’s on order," he says. Maybe he can use it next year. "For six bucks I can be a sport."

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