Rashi (l.) and Yossel at the Chabad of
Harlem, a synagogue and community center
at 437 Manhattan Ave.
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.”
The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a Black Jewish congregation near Mount Morris Park, was the only functioning synagogue in Harlem until it closed last year. Old Broadway Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on 125th St. since 1923, lies just west of historic Harlem, Gurock said.
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.”