Hoping for a miracle – Synagogue’s ranks thin in South Bronx

Hoping for a miracle – Synagogue’s ranks thin in South Bronx Congregation Hope of Israel synagogue

Published in the New York Daily News.

Congregation Hope of Israel, tucked away between the Bronx County courthouse and Yankee Stadium, is on its last legs.

It has not had regular services for the past three years. The rabbi of 30 years died in July. It has not been able to form a minyan – the 10 Jewish men required by Orthodox denominations to hold prayers. For this year’s high holy days, students from Yeshiva University had to be hired to secure a minyan.

“We’re on our last leg. Either people die, or they leave. No more Jews are coming,” said Sam Tenzer, 70, by far the youngest of the few remaining members. “This is our last hurrah. We need a miracle.”

The last Jewish temple in the lower Grand Concourse neighborhood, and one of only three in the South Bronx, the congregation once was the heart of a vibrant Jewish community.

A half-century ago, the area was almost entirely Jewish, with hundreds of synagogues from various streams of Judaism dotting the streets.

Today, almost no Jews remain in the area, with statistics provided by the local community board showing the neighborhood’s population is now 58% Hispanic, 36% black and a mere 1.4% white.

“Unless something happens, the Jewish people in this area are going to be gone – completely,” said 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 socioeconomic 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 Issenberg, 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, when the second language in the South Bronx was Yiddish, not Spanish.

Issenberg traces the start 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 for other parts of New York and throughout the United States, and as the community grew older, they too began to flee, mostly to Florida.

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.

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.

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