Bronx Exodus for elderly Jews

Exactly one week before the Jewish New Year, Congregation Hope of Israel is almost completely deserted.

With a Star of David adorning its front, the synagogue is tucked away between Yankee Stadium and the Bronx County Courthouse. The last Jewish temple on the Grand Concourse has been active since 1949 and was once the heart of a vibrant Jewish community. Yet on the last Sabbath of the year 5763 only six elderly Jews came to pray. Hope was very hard to find.

“We’re on our last leg,” said Sam Tenzer, 70, by far the youngest of the bunch. “We’re dying one way or the other. Either people die, or they leave. No more Jews are coming.”

The congregation has not had regular services for the past three years. It has not been able to form a minyan, meaning the presence of 10 Jewish men required by Orthodox denominations in order to hold prayers. The Rabbi of 30 years passed away in July, and the building has been put up for sale.

To guarantee prayers for this year’s high holidays, students from Yeshiva University have been hired to secure a proper Jewish service. After Yom Kippur, however, the future of the Jewish community looks bleak.

“This is our last hurrah,” said Tenzer, a 23-year veteran of the congregation. “We need a miracle to save this place.”

A half-century ago the area was almost entirely Jewish with hundreds of synagogues from various streams of Judaism peppered throughout the streets. Today, almost no Jews remain, with Congregation Hope of Israel being almost the last relic of a celebrated past. According to statistics provided by the local community board, the population of the neighborhood is now 58 percent Hispanic, 36 percent black and a mere 1.4 percent white.

“Unless something [unforeseen] happens, the Jewish people in this area are going to be gone – completely,” said Prof. Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx Borough Historian. Ultan has been studying the Bronx for almost 50 years and says that this phenomenon is a natural process and part of the borough’s historic function.

“The Bronx is generally a rung in the socio-economic ladder,” he said. “People come from somewhere lower in the ladder and move on to somewhere higher.”

However, this is hardly consoling to the few who have been left behind.

“We’re the last of the Mohicans,” said Verna Eissenberg, 81, a part-time volunteer who is mostly responsible for keeping the synagogue operational. “And I’m not a young chicken anymore. I’m an old hen.”

The soft-spoken former nurse arrived in the area in 1955 to find an environment of peers similar to her European Jewish heritage. Those were the days when the second language in the South Bronx was Yiddish, not Spanish.

Eissenberg traces the beginning of the Jewish exodus from the South Bronx to the late 1960s. Many Jews moved to other parts of the Bronx such as Riverdale and the newly built Co-Op City. Their children left to other parts of New York and throughout the United States and as the community grew older they too began to flee, mostly to Florida.

“There are only a few of us left and each week it gets a little smaller,” she said with a sigh. “Someone passes away, someone moves into a nursing home. It’s sad.”

Aside from two other very small temples, Hope of Israel is now the last functioning synagogue in the entire South Bronx. Many have been demolished, the vacant lots used to build public structures such as the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Others have been renovated and transformed into churches and places of worship.

One such building lies eight blocks to the north on the historic Grand Concourse. The words Temple Adath Israel are carved into the front of the massive building, but this temple, erected in 1927, hasn’t been a synagogue for more than a generation. Since 1972 this historic Bronx landmark has been the home of a Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Christian congregation that prays on Saturday and practices many traditions and dietary laws similar to Jews. With a balcony overflowed with more than 600 worshipers, the sounds of gospel music echo from within.

Congregation Hope of Israel now faces a similar fate. The beautifully designed sanctuary is scarcely used and non-Jews are now the primary beneficiaries of the community Jewish Senior Center, which serves kosher food for all.

“We are very discouraged,” Eissenberg said when speaking about her synagogue. “It needs repair, but there is no one to repair it for.”

She remembers the days when Jews used to come after Yankee games and judges and lawyers would arrive from the court to complete a minyan. “Now we have to beg people to come,” Tenzer said in frustration.

However, most of the Jews in the South Bronx these days are tourists. Members of the Adventist church say that children of former synagogue members often stop by to thank them for maintaining the site, which was once so meaningful to their parents. Elder Neville Campbell, a leader in the congregation, said that they understand the importance of its location and stressed that the Jewish faith is consistent with their core beliefs.

“We are not disaligned with Judaism,” he said, before adding. “But Jesus is the fulfillment.”

Despite this ironic end to Judaism in the South Bronx, Eissenberg takes comfort in the fact that at least some of their holy sites will live on.

“In a way, it continues to be a place of God,” Eissenberg said of the Church. “Even if it is another religion, it is still prayers to the almighty.”