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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.

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