What was a once-thriving center of Jewish life had seen its last synagogue close. The future seemed bleak for the few Jews who remained in the South Bronx, more than half a century after its heyday.
Home to nearly 600,000 Jews in the first half of the 20th century, the Bronx saw its once-glorious Jewish community begin to decline after World War II, with redevelopment changing the fabric of neighborhoods around the city. By the 1980s, few Jews were left in the borough’s neglected neighborhoods, timeworn streets and crumbling buildings.
By 2017, nearly all the synagogues in the South Bronx had been demolished or redeveloped, and the boarded-up doors of one of the few remaining buildings that remained identifiable as a synagogue, Congregation Hope of Israel, at 843 Walton Ave., had become a target for vandalism, graffiti and trash. But while the Bronx Jewish community had dwindled, it had not disappeared.
“I would join other locals to paint over the graffiti and clean up the synagogue grounds,” Michelle Daniels, an Australian expatriate who has lived in the Bronx since 2007, told Chabad.org.
Daniels directs the Bronx Rox, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building pride in the Bronx and encouraging community members to participate in volunteer beautification and cleanup efforts.
As residents united to better their neighborhood—and as real estate investors poured record sums into the suddenly-booming Bronx housing market—the borough’s Jews felt underserved.
Eager to kickstart a renewal of Jewish life, Daniels led a group of Jews from the South Bronx who reached out to local leaders and government officials to galvanize support for a new Jewish center.
Through a mutual friend, Daniels was introduced to Rabbi Choli Mishulovin of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had recently married Chana Mushka (nee Alevsky), whose parents, Rabbi Chayim and Sarah Alevsky, co-direct Chabad Family Programs on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The Mishulovins were exploring their options in joining the global community of more than 5,000 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries who serve 100 countries and all 50 U.S. states, and now they were made aware of a neighborhood with a burgeoning Jewish population that had no way of expressing their Judaism.
“I told them, let’s do some services in my building and see what type of interest we get,” said Daniels. “They did that, and they hosted a Torah class in my apartment, and enough Jews were interested that they made the decision to open Chabad of the South Bronx.”
The young couple faced an uphill struggle in an area with little in the way of a crystallized Jewish community. “I called a local Jew and he told me, ‘I’m the only Jew here,’ ” says Choli Mishulovin. “He came to our program and was pleasantly surprised to meet other Jewish Bronxites.”
Rabbi Choli and Chana Mushka say they were inspired by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. “The Rebbe taught that there is no city that doesn’t have Jews who could be uplifted,” said Mishulovin. “It has to be true of the South Bronx, too.”
As a rabbinical student, Mishulovin visited Bel Air, a small town in northeastern Maryland, where he saw firsthand how communities came together. “We met people at antique shows, in lounges and on the street,” he said. “With a list of 30 local Jews we’d met, a Chabad couple moved there several months later. Out of nothing, a community was built.”
‘Breaking new ground’
Rabbi Levi Shemtov has co-directed Chabad of the Bronx together with his wife, Sarah, since 1992 from their center in Riverdale. “I would get calls every month asking about Chabad in the South Bronx,” he said. “We’re meeting people who lived here for 20 years and are amazed that Chabad is here now.”
He added that “just a few years ago, nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought that anything Jewish would open here. Chabad is breaking new ground; people can’t believe it.”
Although theJewish community in many Bronx neighborhoods underwent a decades-long hiatus, it had been home in its heyday to numerous Chassidic communities, including a thriving Chabad community.
“My wife Sarah actually lived in the Bronx as a child and attended a Chabad school here in the ’70s,” he said. “It’s been some time since the golden days of Bronx’s Jewish community, when yeshivahs, JCCs, kosher butchers, bakeries and delis dotted the neighborhood, but it’s on the rise again, and the future is bright.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. agrees that the Jewish resurgence throughout the Bronx is a good thing: “The Bronx was once home to over 500,000 Jews, and as the entire borough sees continued growth, I’m proud that the Jewish community is an integral part of that rebirth,” said Diaz. “I wish Chabad of the South Bronx and the entire Bronx Jewish community continued success.”
Keith Rubenstein, of the South Bronx real estate development firm Somerset Partners says the Mishulovins are an asset to the entire neighborhood.
“As the community develops in parts on the Bronx that were undeveloped, the Jewish population is expanding at the same time,” he said. “Rabbi and Mrs. Mishulovin are doing a great service for everyone in the community.”
Since the Mishulovins moved to the neighborhood, a steady stream of local Jews have come out of the woodwork, glad to once again be afforded opportunities to be part of a proud Jewish community. Weekly Friday-night dinners draw longtime residents and newcomers to the neighborhood alike. Semi-monthly Torah classes, monthly women’s circles and lunch-and-learns serve young professionals attracted to the South Bronx by its affordable housing and proximity to their jobs in Manhattan.
“People are proud to be from the South Bronx,” says Chana Mushka Mishulovin. “It’s got personality; there is so much music, culture and art. There has been an influx of immigrants from around the world; the South Bronx is truly a melting pot of so many cultures and peoples. The Jewish community has always been a key component of life in the South Bronx, and so many people who grew up here or have parents or grandparents from here are excited that the Bronx is coming back in a Jewish way.”
For more information on Chabad of the South Bronx, visit their web site, chabadsouthbronx.com For information on other Chabad centers in the Bronx, visit here.