Jewish Harlem: Then and Now
Happy Jewish American Heritage Month!
May is Jewish American Heritage Month. What, you thought I forgot?!
Like other U.S. heritage months, the purpose of Jewish American Heritage Month is to honor and recognize the contributions and rich history of Jewish Americans, beginning with the first group of Jews entering New Amsterdam in 1654. President George W. Bush proclaimed May as Jewish American Heritage Month on April 20, 2006, led by efforts of the Jewish Museum of Florida and the South Florida Jewish community.
Test your knowledge with this fun Jewish American Heritage Month quiz. I am embarrassed to say I got a 6/11 so I’m sure you can do better than me. Share your score in the comments below!
There’s so much Jewish American history and many Jewish American communities I could write about, like Jews of the Wild West, Alaska’s Jewish community (aka “the Frozen Chosen”), antisemitism in America, and the oldest synagogue in America. But there’s one neighborhood in particular that is rife with Jewish history that often goes overlooked when talking about Jewish communities in America, and that is Harlem. It’s shocking considering it was once the third largest Jewish community after Warsaw and the Lower East Side!
The forgotten history of Jewish Harlem
Did you know that Harlem once had hundreds of synagogues? You can walk around the Manhattan neighborhood today and spot remnants of its Jewish past… if you know where to look.
This year I started writing for Jewish Unpacked, a site of OpenDor Media that explains nuanced topics of Judaism, and it lifts my soul. Check out part one of Jewish Harlem here!
Famous historical Jewish Harlemites
From escape artist Harry Houdini to the composers who brought you The Sound of Music, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and many others, Harlem is home to famous Jews who contributed to American culture and society. Read part two - the Jews of Harlem - here!
Does Jewish Harlem still exist today?
What I didn’t cover on Jewish Unpacked is what Jewish Harlem is like today. You get a Shabbat Drop exclusive for that one!
Today, Harlem is experiencing a Jewish resurgence, with over 10,000 Jewish-identifying residents, and few organizations serving a small but active (and growing!) community.
The last remaining synagogue from old Jewish Harlem is Old Broadway Synagogue (first photo), an Orthodox shul that has served the Ashkenazi Harlem community since 1923. Holding weekly services and classes out of a building that boasts stained glass Stars of David, the synagogue serves families in West Harlem and Morningside Heights.
Chabad of course has a branch in Harlem on 118th Street and has been in the neighborhood since 2005. Just down the street from Chabad is the Jewish Community Center of Harlem, which gathers neighbors of all backgrounds for cultural programs and events. Local Jewish groups that have used their space include Harlem Minyan and Kehillat Harlem, one of the first Harlem synagogues in over a century engaging more than 150 households, which now has its own space in Central Harlem just a few blocks from JCC Harlem.
“Those of us building Jewish life in Harlem today are drawing from its rich Jewish history,” says Erica Frankel, JCC Harlem advisory board member and Co-Founder of Based in Harlem and Kehillat Harlem, said.
“Jewish life in Harlem has always been characterized by innovation that has become embedded in North America, like how the ‘shul with a pool’ became the model for Jewish community centers. Today, Harlem continues to be a lab for innovation in Jewish life for the broader community.”
- Erica Frankel
Other community programs unique to the area include Harlem Havruta, which engages Jews of Color and their allies, and Embrace Harlem, which grows Jewish life for local families.
National community programs that have chapters in Harlem are Base, which Erica and her husband, Dimitry, run out of their home to engage hundreds of young adults in hospitality, learning, and service; Moishe House, whose DC branches personally played a huge role in my Jewish journey; and Repair the World, which engages the local Jewish community in service and learning.
As for education, the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School is a branch of the Hebrew Public schools and has been open since 2013 with the goal to keep the Hebrew language alive. It may not be the yeshivas of yesteryear — it has no religion classes — but it conducts classes in Hebrew for a diverse student population including Jewish, Black, and Hispanic children.
Tsion Café of Upper Harlem has been serving Ethiopian Israeli cuisine since 2014. Chef Beejhy Barhany, an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant who I interviewed, opened this restaurant in her neighborhood to serve a cuisine that reflects her diverse Jewish identity. She also hosts events at her café to educate about Ethiopian Jews, known as the Beta Israel. I’m planning a future Shabbat Drop-in here so be on the lookout!
As you can see, Harlem’s grandiose synagogues of the past have been replaced by churches or empty lots, its most famed residents long gone. However, Harlem today is teeming with a vibrant Jewish culture. One doesn’t have to look too hard to find somewhere to pray, learn, or share a meal with a welcoming community. You just have to know where to look.
Don’t forget to sign up for The Shabbat Drop’s NYC post-Shavuot picnic on May 28! I’m supplying kosher cheese, so feel free to bring anything else: drinks, snacks, friendly vibes. Shabbat Shalom. May you have a relaxing one.