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Manhattan, NY - Led by Chabad, Diverse Group of Jews Make Up New Presence in Harlem

Published on: September 13, 2008 11:22 PM
By: NY Daily News
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Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg with his children Rashi (l.) and Yossel at the Chabad of Harlem, a synagogue and community center at 437 Manhattan Ave.Manhattan, NY - On Friday evening before Sabbath services and dinner, Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg dons his best black fedora and long silk coat and sets out chairs and prayer books.

The rich aroma of his wife’s matzo ball soup drifts through the hall, a tempting, olfactory invitation to pray.

The Gansbourgs know their food has to be good if they want to attract a crowd. Not all their congregants strictly keep the Sabbath or kosher, and on Fridays, just a few blocks away, is Amy Ruth’s soul food restaurant with chicken and waffles.

Gansbourg, a stout man with a silver-streaked beard and a thick Yiddish accent, is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Harlem, a one-room synagogue and community center on the ground floor of 437 Manhattan Ave. at 118th St. that he and his wife, Goldie, opened last year.

The center is the latest and most visible sign of a renewal of Jewish life in the neighborhood.


After nearly a century, Jewish communal life is quietly returning to West Harlem as a diverse group of Jews move back to a neighborhood once rich with synagogues, Yiddish theaters and kosher butchers.

In the past five years, new signs of Jewish life have emerged. Mezuzahs - scroll boxes that mark a Jewish home - have started popping up on door frames. The school bus to Kinneret Day School in Riverdale now makes two stops in Harlem. And on Chanukah, flames from several menorahs flickered merrily over Manhattan Ave.

There are now two options for Sabbath prayer in Harlem. Chabad of Harlem offers a traditional Orthodox service and kosher Sabbath meals.
It was founded on the heels of Techiya - Hebrew for renewal - a traditional egalitarian prayer group that has met monthly since 2005 in local homes for Friday night services and pot luck dinners.
“When we came here, a lot of people were shocked,” said Goldie Gansbourg. “‘There are Jews in Harlem?’ people asked.” But as her husband explained, there are now enough Jews in the neighborhood “to get a good show rolling here.”

Attracted by striking architecture, plummeting crime and relatively affordable rents, middle-class whites are moving back to Harlem, Jews among them.

Harlem was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. At its peak before World War I, there were about 175,000 Jews living in Harlem, said Jeffrey Gurock, author of “When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870-1930.”
“I think they’re moving there for the same reason Jews moved there almost 100 years ago,” Gurock said. “Imagine it’s about 1900 and you have an apartment with cross ventilation overlooking Central Park. Pretty damn good.”

Affordable housing is not the only draw here. Yoel Borgenicht, a local real estate developer, says he fell in love with “the culture of the place, both African-American and Jewish.”

Shani Offen, a neuroscientist who lives on 118th St. and Manhattan Ave., says Harlem offers a sense of community. “I love the neighborhood,” she said. “People here smile at each other and say hello on the street.”

These days, the Harlem Jewish community is diverse. Members hail from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, France and Great Britain. There is a professional poet, a dermatologist and a public school teacher.

Many say that while renewing Jewish life in Harlem is important, forging relationships with neighbors is equally so.
Some, like Doron Fagelson, say they don’t feel like outsiders, but are returning to a neighborhood as important to American Jewish history as the lower East Side. It’s a place where the Jewish community left a footprint, he said. “I think that’s kind of exciting.”

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Read Comments (11)  —  Post Yours »


 Sep 13, 2008 at 11:34 PM Charlie Hall Says:

I can't believe that this article failed to mention the one Orthodox synagogue that has remained in Broadway for decades: The Old Broadway Synagogue near 125th Street, which has been in the same location since the 1920s. A few years ago the mid-Manhattan eruv was extended to include that shul. So there are now two *Orthodox* options for Shabat in West Harlem.

For the record, the Kinneret Day School is a secular Zionist school. One of the founders was Golda Meir. While not a religious school, I do know one man who attended it as a child who is now an Orthodox rabbi.


 Sep 14, 2008 at 12:09 AM Lock & Load Says:

You People....


 Sep 14, 2008 at 12:06 AM Anonymous Says:

I guess the housing problem in our cirlces is now solved.

We are all running to move to Harlem.


 Sep 14, 2008 at 12:48 AM love Says:

Kol A kavod to Chabad!


 Sep 14, 2008 at 01:01 AM Anonymous sara Says:

well I think clinton was the first (held ) to go to harlem


 Sep 14, 2008 at 07:20 AM daeh zuger Says:

Can't wait to see wha happens when the 1st shtraimel walks down the street friday night


 Sep 14, 2008 at 07:40 AM Slouve Says:

When will Chabad open a little shul in the Valisburg part of Newark, NJ? Rents are pretty cheap there.


 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:10 AM Yossel Says:

i guess there is hope for evryone


 Sep 14, 2008 at 01:59 PM Anonymous Says:

Shaye Congratulations, we are proud of you.

Shaye is Yungerman a big talmid Chacham, Never forgets what he learned Lears Shiurim with many people in Brooklyn and Harlem. and verty Energetic.
His wife is a seminary teacher and very energetic.
A successful bussnessman made a decision at his age to take upon homself the founding of Chabad in Harlem. in short 2 years he has made a world of change.
hope that your example will be followed by many more.


 Sep 14, 2008 at 08:19 PM NY Says:

My great grandparents had a beautiful apt. in Harlem overlooking Central Park until 1925. It had high ceilings, parquet floors, a state of the art kitchen and beautiful fireplaces. There was a magnificent Sephardic synagogue there.

When there is a community there again, I would not mind to live like that.


 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:17 PM bigwheeel Says:

The same hope can be raised for a whole host of neighborhoods that were originally Jewish and turned [primarily] into african-american (Black) neighborhoods. Among them, Roxbury, Massachusetts and most Bronx neighborhoods. What about New Lots Avenue in East-New York, Brooklyn which used to be [considered] "Thirteenth Ave." of that neighborhood. Today, it looks like a "Pioneer Town", with [a] few buildings standing among empty lots!


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