Bronx synagogue welcomes Jewish New Year with a last goodbye

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The conservative synagogue’s sanctuary of wood and stained glass once bustled with a congregation of almost 1,000. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

On a rainy Wednesday night at the start of Rosh Hashanah, Miriam and Herbert Korman struggled up the stairs to reach the lobby of Temple Emanuel at Parkchester in the Bronx. Eight other congregants waited patiently for the couple to arrive inside the almost empty sanctuary of faded wood and stained glass. As he reached the foyer, 91-year-old Herbert Korman groaned with exhaustion.

It was the final time that the Kormans will lead Jewish New Year services at Temple Emanuel. On Oct. 31, Parkchester’s last conservative synagogue will officially close, bringing an end to another chapter of Jewish history in the Bronx.

“I can’t even imagine not having this,” said Miriam Korman, as she nodded towards the two-story sanctuary. “We’ve been members here for over 50 years.”

The 88-year-old congregation president said she is disheartened by the synagogue’s closing, but with her stroke last July and her husband’s fragile health, it’s time to let go.

The synagogue’s closing comes down to a problem of numbers.

Without the Kormans, visiting Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch could not even assemble the minimum of 10 adult Jews needed to form a minyan, essentially a quorum to open the arc that holds the Torah, and start rituals to pray for a sweet new year. This time, there was more sense of sorrow than sweetness in the air.

“I feel sad,” said Herbert Korman, the temple ritual chairman, as he clung to his walker for support. “I feel very sad. There are no Jews left here so we can’t continue. That’s what has to happen.”

The rabbi’s recitation of the holy text reverberated across the hall, drawing attention to the almost deserted space that once held close to a thousand members. At times leading the service himself from the front pew, Herbert Korman directed the rabbi to read specific holiday passages.

Temple Emanuel, on the corner of Benedict and Pugsley Avenues, was built in 1948. The congregation started in 1942 at a corner store under the No. 6 train, according to Joan Green, a lifelong member whose father helped raise the money to build the imposing red brick structure. At its peak, the temple overflowed during Shabbat service on Saturdays.

Green’s voice crackled as she described her childhood at the temple: attending Hebrew school, joining the Girl Scouts and witnessing bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

“Everything revolved around here,” said the 75-year-old retired recreational therapist. “We had hundreds and hundreds of families. Parkchester had a lot of Jewish people in those days.”

Green said there were so many kids during her time that the rabbi had to combine bar mitzvahs “because they didn’t have enough Saturdays” to hold individual services.

“It was a home away from home for us,” Green said.

Parkchester once needed at least five synagogues to accommodate all the Jewish families in the area, said Miriam Korman. According to the Bronx County Historical Society, almost half of Bronx’s entire population of 1.26 million in 1930 was Jewish. But as of 2002, there were only 45,100 Jews in the borough of 1.3 million people, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council, a non-profit advocacy group.

At Temple Emanuel, George Serrano, 65, and Sharon Long, 52, are among the youngest members. Serrano said many upwardly mobile families moved to more affluent Riverdale and Westchester County in search of better schools. Other aging members simply died or retired to Florida.

“What happened here is part of the Jewish phenomenon–Jews are moving,” said Deutsch, 40, the visiting rabbi, who had flown in from San Francisco. It was his first visit to New York City and he stayed for only three days. About 20 years ago, the congregation had a steep decline in membership, said Green. With much less money coming in, the temple could then only afford student or temporary rabbis, and the lively musical accompaniment of a cantor and organist was no longer in the budget.

Three years ago, the struggling Temple Emanuel transferred the building’s ownership to the Bronx Jewish Community Council Inc., which helped with its finances and the process of closing down. The Jewish non-profit group sold the synagogue in August to its next-door neighbor, the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, for $875,000, according to city records.

But closing a temple isn’t simple. “You can’t just abandon a synagogue,” said Serrano. “We have to liquidate everything, even the Torahs.” He said one of the five holy scrolls will be donated to a Jewish day school in Rockland County. On Oct. 5, Green will also send a scroll wrapped in a shawl to a synagogue in Oklahoma City.

“The spirit of the synagogue will always be present in the building,” said Serrano. The few remaining members have until the end of October to conclude services and move out before the charter school fills their beloved space. It will then be converted into classrooms and will not be torn down, said the charter school’s finance director, Archie Crawford.

Green, who lives in Co-op City, said she is not ready to find a new synagogue to call home. For now, she will focus on the last services, including the conclusion of Yom Kippur on Oct. 8. “And then we are history,” she said.

“L’Shanah Tova,” (to a sweet year) the Kormans said as they greeted other congregants at the conclusion of the Wednesday service. Then they shuffled out of the synagogue and into the dark, rainy night.

  • http://www.facebook.com/IraElJay Ira L. Jacobson

    While the whole story is very sad, there are several inaccuracies here. Among them was the implication that the volunteer choir had been paid.

    There were never anything like 1000 members. However, there is still a synagogue in Parkchester, Bais Menachem, which is led by three Chabad men who walk 15 miles every Saturday to keep the congregation going. And it is sad that the remaining members of Temple Emanuel, which has closed, are boycotting the new Bais Menahem synagogue.

    An unfortunate occurrence with regard to the Torah scrolls of Temple Emanuel. Despite the plea of a former member now living in Israel, that one scroll be donated to his congregation, which has no Torah scroll of its own, the aging members of Temple Emanuel, prodded by their student rabbi, donated two of the scrolls to a day camp, where they will never be read in public.

    Solidarity was never their outstanding quality. Now that Mr. Korman has passed away at the age of 90, let us pray that the Jewish community of Parkchester, which has so dwindled, will unite.

    And perhaps the Times could investigate what happened to the nearly one million dollars in proceeds from selling the Temple Emanuel building.

  • Ted Regencia

    Thank you Mr. Ira L. Jacobson for your comment. The story that we wrote was based on the interviews that we have done with members of the congregation. We also wrote that it’s the last “conservative synagogue”, not necessarily the last synagogue. As for the number of congregants, we based that as well on the info given to us by the members.

  • endymian

    the kormans were the superman and superwoman of volunteerism at temple emanuel and in the public schools that i attended with jay korman their son.
    as a kid in parkchester in the 1950′s and 1960′s it seemed to me that they filled their lives with giving service to the parkchester community and temple emanuel.

    when my mother died almost 20 years ago, they were the ones who seemed to be keeping the temple going, and thanks to them we still found temple emanuel open to worship and came back to say kadish for my mother at firday night services.

    in the 1960′s my father was on the board of the temple and worked with the kormans, in the temple bortherhood and sisterhood.

    can anyone post a message about what has been the fate of the memorial plaques on the south wall of the sanctuary. as family members had memorial plaques, i wonder if they remain in place, or if they have been removed.

    thanks mhs

  • Iralaser

    Amazing how different people remember different things. I attended Shabbat morning prayers at least 90% of the time from 1954 until I married in 1961, and I don’t remember any Kormans being present there. In fact, since there was the strange custom of calling people for aliyot by their English names, including the surnames, I am quite certain that there were no Kormans (at least on Shabbatot) during that period at Temple Emanuel at Parkchester.. Also I don’t remember them from late Friday evening prayers, I presume they joined and/or became active later,
    Regarding the plaques, some have been located but I fear that the others were sold for scrap metal. And this is after repeated pleas to the organization that received the building as a gift and sold it for close to one million dollars.

  • endymian

    let me be clearer about my own memories of the temple my extended family lived in parkchester and my grandparents and their four children–including my parents–began to go to services and became members of the temple in the mid 1950′s. my friends and i began hebrew school in !957 during the time when mrs. angstreich was our much feared, but greatly respected hebrew teacher, and the rabbi was our much beloved rabbi mendelcorn(spelling may be incorrect here!) my grandparents attended firday and saturday sabath services weekly and belonged to the brotherhood and sisterhood. in fact this past saturday, marked the 50th anniversary of my bar mitzvah at temple emanuel.

    jay korman along with my other jewish conservative freinds from public school was in my class, and i can still remember miriam korman being on the scene in both public school and at the temple. it seemed so odd that jay’s mother, seemed to be both at public school and hebrew school and temple with him! at jhs 127 miriam korman was almost a daily sight as a volunteer, and as i remember involved in the pta. i also remember that when my father was on the board of the temple in the early and mid 1960′s that herbert korman was also involved with the temple brotherhood.

    you seem to indicate that your association with temple emanuel ended or changed abouit 1961 when you married. that would be just around the time that my friends, and all our famlies, with all our bar mitzvahs coming up in the years 1963 and 64 would have been the most involved with the temple.

    and as i said in my first blog, the other day, when my mother died 20 years ago this coming june, we reunited with the temple to say kadish on firday evenings, with miriam and herb korman leading services in one of our old class rooms at the back of the sanctuary. even at that tim, there probably were only just enough worhsippers to have the service they seemed to be in charge of.

  • endymian

    several family members plaques were installed on the wall and it would have been nice to have been able to rescue them from the sanctuary. you said some have been recovered, is there any way to find out for sure the fate of the plaques and how the plaques that you mention came to be recovered much appreciated.

  • Iralaser

    You should check the Facebook page called Temple Emanuel at Parkchester, especially the postings of Sara Wyner Gootblatt.

  • Iralaser

    In addition to my association with the Temple from 1954 to 1961, I did attend from time to time on visits to my parents until 1970.

  • Jay Korman

    MHS,
    thank you for the kind words about mom & dad. Closing the synagogue was one of the saddest things they went through. If you want to know the disposition of the memorial plaques or anything else you may contact the Bronx Jewish Community Council (718) 652-5500 or through their website. You can contact me at twodogs9@gmail.com
    Yes, I know who you are. You are a talented and creative man who finger-painted in a JHS 127 art class.
    JEK

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