Bronx Former Shuls Tour: A Review

The landscape of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx resembles Queens Boulevard, with a five-mile procession of middle-class apartment buildings along a wide thoroughfare of local and express lanes.  Among the apartments are dozens of buildings that have Jewish features on them, reminders of a bygone era in that borough’s history.

“The buildings are still standing.  For the most part, they’ve become churches,” said Ellen Levitt, author of Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens, an encyclopedic guide to the current conditions of former synagogue facilities.  On Sunday, July 10, she gave a tour of the Grand Concourse’s former congregations.  “Most of them closed by the 1970s, but the buildings are still standing.”

My connection to the Grand Concourse goes back to my high school days, when I had a couple of friends who lived in the neighborhood.  They were not Jewish, but their apartments had mezuzos hidden behind layers of paint.  It piqued my curiosity, and I was told by their parents that the neighborhood was once overwhelmingly Jewish.

The 22 tour participants included residents of all boroughs and nearby suburbs, mostly middle-aged and elderly, who were either raised in the neighborhood or grew up hearing about it.  “I moved out in 1974 and was among the last,” said Flatbush resident Joel Schnur.  “It was a dangerous neighborhood.  I carried a knife daily, except on Shabbos, and used it on a couple of occasions.”

The tour began at the corner of Tremont Avenue and the Grand Concourse, where blue paint had covered the brick arched windows and Stars of David on a Christian nursery school.  “This is the former Temple Zion,” said Levitt.  The elaborate decorative elements of many former synagogues evoked a bygone culture whose people had left the neighborhood entirely while leaving behind plenty of evidence.  In contrast to the formershuls in Arab countries and Eastern Europe, in New York’s inner-city neighborhoods relocation was voluntary.  “Sometimes it was under economic duress.  They wanted to move to nicer neighborhoods,” said Levitt.  In the years following World War II, this meant trading in the relatively spacious apartments of the Grand Concourse for the backyards and driveways of the suburbs, following the patterns of the general population.

A public school teacher, Levitt developed an interest in former shuls while driving by theshul she had attended as a girl.  “In April 1999, I decided to see what had become of the synagogue.  Once known as Shaare Torah, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, it had morphed into the Salem Missionary Baptist Church,” said Levitt.  “I snapped photos of the site, on East 21st Street and Albemarle Road.”

Some former synagogues have so many Jewish architectural elements on them that, if not for the metal church signs nailed to the façades, one could assume that the neighborhood is still Jewish.  “These lost synagogues are intriguing.  We can appreciate them for their past: how they were created, how they flourished, how they declined,” said Levitt.

Turning a corner on 177th Street, the tour passed by a park built on vacant land in 1993, busy with teens playing basketball; but a reminder of why many Jews had left by the 1970s was also at that location – in the form of memorial candles on the sidewalk for a homicide victim.  Two police officers stood by the makeshift tribute.  Sandwiched between the playground and a parking lot, a Pentecostal church bears the engraved name of an earlier occupant, Congregation Mesilath Yeshurun, which had its last services here in 1975.  While the police officers appeared surprised to see a tour group on Walton Avenue, the church was in the middle of Sunday services, aware of the building’s past and inviting the visitors to take a glimpse of the sanctuary, where Christian slogans took the place of memorial plaque on walls.

From my own experience leading walking tours, limiting one’s script exclusively to the topic at hand leaves out things that the group saw in between, such as the flourishing community gardens built on empty lots, pre-war public schools designed in the Collegiate Gothic style that evokes elite universities, and the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and West African newcomers who moved into the Bronx neighborhoods vacated by Jews.

Levitt’s background as a teacher made her a natural to give tours based on her ability to lecture in front of large audiences.  Nevertheless, precautions should be kept in mind before giving a tour.  When a tour route is organized, it is best to take a dry run ahead of the tour date to make sure that there is enough to see along the way, to anticipate questions from participants based on the surroundings, and that the route is realistic depending on the age, physical abilities, and weather conditions.  As a native of the neighborhood, Schnur often added his personal insights to the guide’s narration, but he should not have appeared as more knowledgeable than the guide.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum were Batsheva and Danny Solomon, a young Brooklyn couple pushing a double stroller.  “We were dropping off a brother in Queens and were looking for something to do.  We found this tour online,” said Danny Solomon.  Coming from the borough with the largest Jewish population, they were surprised to walk down 169th Street, which was the Bronx’s synagogue row of the mid-20th century.  “They even had a mikvah here,” said Solomon.

Like them, I was puzzled to learn that so many expensive structures were abandoned within the span of a decade.  I did not know how tough it was in those days, when neighborhoods were redlined by banks, properties sold in fire-sales by blockbusting real estate agents, or burned for insurance by owners.  Such neighborhoods were subjected to disinvestment that led to an uptick in crime while services and infrastructure deteriorated.  Certain neighborhoods had highways carved through their hearts.

It was a New York unimaginable for today’s young adults, who only know of the city as a place where people want to live, paying premium prices to do so.

With the Three Weeks ahead of Tish’ah B’Av approaching, the sight of doorways with traces of mezuzos and Hebrew letters on churches serves as a reminder of the ephemerality of exile.  Whether it is Baghdad, Warsaw, or a borough whose population was nearly half Jewish in 1930, these places were all temporary stops in the historical journey of the Jewish people.