By Carly Silver, Columbia Spectator
In a neighborhood characterized by its African-American identity, another—perhaps unlikely—demographic is making a return after a long time under the radar. For the first time in decades, a Jewish community has begun to reclaim its loose strand in Harlem’s history.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Jewish population in Harlem was booming, but it gradually dwindled until its presence was almost forgotten. After so many years, the Harlem Jewish Center, or Chabad, provides a home for Jewish Harlemites, one of the area’s growing minorities.
It all started on a M60 bus ride from LaGuardia Airport down 125th Street. Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg, who lives and works in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, was struck by Harlem’s streetscape and thought: “something must be happening here. I saw Staples. I saw Old Navy. Maybe this is a place to go look at.”
Gansbourg then linked this experience with, in his eyes, a lack of a cohesive Jewish network at the City College of New York, founding a Chabad there. “What we saw was that it would be important to create a Jewish environment,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Gansbourg admits that establishing a chapter of Chabad in Harlem “sounded like a joke in the beginning to everybody,” but now, the Harlem Jewish Center has been at its current location at 437 Manhattan Ave. for over a year. Rabbi Gansbourg estimates the number of Jews in Harlem to be about 2,000.
The numbers have fluctuated throughout time. According to data from the Columbia Journalist , a news service affiliated with the Journalism School, Harlem had a Jewish population of about 178,000 in 1921, which dwindled to 5,000 in fewer than 10 years. That period marked the beginning of the African-American increase in population in Harlem, sparking the literary and cultural phenomenon known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”
One of the difficulties Rabbi Gansbourg faces is making his center known to Harlem Jews. It is “not the easiest thing,” he said. “One thing which is effective are fliers, which we hang up wherever we can.” The recruiters of Chabad also “go to Morningside Park and meet people,” but, “then, it’s word of mouth,” he said.
Both a faith-based and social center, Chabad provides services for young families and congregation participants, at the same time holding a “Mommy & Me” program.
Jewish monuments—some of which have been converted into churches—serve as a reminder of a religious past. But synagogues old and new, such as the Chabad, are slowly attracting members. The Old Broadway Synagogue, located between 125th and 126th streets, has gained a sizeable following in recent years. But the Commandment Keepers, a group of Ethiopian Jews, have since closed their synagogue.
Still, the rabbi explained, Harlem has welcomed the incoming Jewish influence.
“I found the immediate community here around us to be supportive of our effort over here. We have a very friendly neighborhood relationship,” Gansbourg said.
Though the Chabad of Harlem and that of Columbia are separate entities, the former affects those who could be members of the latter.
Marley Weiner, BC ’10, participates in the Barnard-Jewish Theological Seminary double-degree program, and has observed a new kind of Judaism springing up in Harlem. “I participate in a group called Techiyah Harlem that is a non-denominational, egalitarian minyan [prayer community] that prays out of Siddur Sim Shalom,” said Weiner, referring to a Jewish prayer book.
Weiner called the group “very warm and open-minded, with a range of observance levels and from a variety of Jewish backgrounds. Most of the members live in Harlem proper, and they seem quite happy and at home there.”
But the Jewish Theological Seminary—a religious school tied to Columbia—has less strong ties with in its neighbor to the north. Alan Mintz, the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and chair of the Department of Hebrew Language at JTS, said that the school is “isolated to some degree” from Harlem. Though JTS is located at the West Harlem-Morningside Heights border, Mintz explained that “it has more to do with the Morningside community,” though he realizes potential for interaction between the two areas.
Mintz went on to note that Harlem contributes to the “rich mix of exposures” that students at the JTS and Columbia can witness.
Others echo this feeling to a greater degree, hardly noticing the growth of the demographic. Kenneth Richard, a Harlem resident and employee at Greater Tabernacle Baptist Church, said that there is a “mixed crowd of folks here,” but added, “I don’t really see that much of a Jewish presence here.”
The community could in part result from the area’s relative affordability, a force unrelated to any specific religious trend.
Lauren Carel, BC ’11 and a student in the double-degree program, said that some of her friends live in Harlem. “They seem to be popular areas for Jews,” she said.
If anything, Gansbourg wants to develop the Chabad into a center for people of all backgrounds. “We don’t have formal membership,” he said. “Everyone can take part in what he wants.”
In addition to its many other purposes, he said, Chabad is intended for “young professionals, singles—they come here for dinner, and sit and schmooze.”