[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By Ari L. Goldman
The Jewish community should invest in Harlem, CONTACT argued in a cover story two years ago. The article, an analysis by Steven I. Weiss, a Harlem resident, recalled that Harlem was once a vibrant center of Jewish life in New York but had lost its Jewish population during much of the 20th Century. Today, Weiss wrote, a growing number of Jews were once again opting to live in Harlem.
“Locations like Harlem,” Weiss added, “need an alternative investment in Jewish growth.” He argued for “a Jewish communal building in Harlem” which, he forecast, “will yield big dividends on both a financial and a communal level.” He called on New York UJA-Federation to act.
That was written in early 2015.
We are happy to report that 2017 began with the opening of the new JCC Harlem, which is located in a trendy renovated garage space at 318 West 118th Street, between Frederick Douglas Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue. Among its very first events was a weekend of programming for Martin Luther King Jr. Day that included a youth carnival, movies and a community Shabbat meal on the theme of racial justice.
Rabbi Deborah Joselow, the chief planning officer of UJA-Federation, called the CONTACT article and the decision to open a space in Harlem “a happy coincidence,” but not a direct cause and effect. But, as she told the story of how the Federation came to open an outpost in Harlem, I couldn’t help but wonder if CONTACT hadn’t planted the seed. As it turns out, that seed was watered and nurtured by Rabbi David Gedzelman, the president and CEO of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, which publishes CONTACT.
Here is what happened, according to an interview with Rabbi Joselow.
In 2010, a study by Brandeis University identified 11 “emerging” Jewish neighborhoods that needed greater resources from Federation. (The Federation covers the five boroughs of New York plus Westchester and Long Island.) Among the neighborhoods on the list were several in Brooklyn and some in northern Manhattan. Harlem was not among them.
In response to the study, the Federation went about opening satellite JCCs. The first to open were in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of North Williamsburg, Windsor Terrace and Clinton Hill. When the CONTACT article about Harlem appeared in 2015, the Federation was beginning to look for space in Washington Heights and Inwood.
The article had suggested that the Federation buy property, but, Rabbi Joselow said, that was never on the table. “We are not in the real estate business and have no desire to be,” she said. The model, she explained, is to rent space and then contract with the local JCCs to run the facility.
In early 2016, a real estate developer was given a zoning variance on a property in Harlem if he agreed to lease part of the property for communal use. Rabbi Gedzelman, who lives in Harlem and is also a founding board member of the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, heard about the opportunity and urged the leaders of the Federation to have a look. He reminded them of the 2015 article and said that this might just be the place for a Jewish outpost in Harlem.
“We went with him to look at it,” Rabbi Joselow recalled. “It was a magnificent space,” she added, but not something the philanthropy could take on. “Afterward, the developer who showed us the space walked us to his offices. Right next door there was a co-working business in a renovated Harlem garage. He told us it would soon be available.”
At this point, the search for a property in northern Manhattan was not going well, she said. “We couldn’t find anything in Washington Heights. We couldn’t find anything in Inwood. Harlem was just down the hill. We wondered, could it work?”
Rabbi Gedzelman stepped in again. He encouraged both the Federation and the JCC Manhattan to work together to turn the facility into Jewish communal space. “There was no way we weren’t going to say ‘yes’ to this project,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, the executive director of the JCC Manhattan. The JCC, located on Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street, is one of the busiest JCCs in the United States. It serves 55,000 people annually in over 1,200 programs.
Its mission, Rabbi Levitt said, is to shape 21st Century Jewish life. “In many ways,” she added, “the Harlem Jewish community looks more like the 21st Century than the Upper West Side. It is more diverse, more dynamic and it is a place with fewer Jewish institutions.”
The much smaller Harlem facility on West 118th Street, is just two and a half miles away, but it is a different world. “This gives us a chance to explore partnerships with the Hispanic community, with Muslims, with African Americans, people we don’t see in great number on the Upper West Side shtetl.”
Rabbi Joselow added that when the JCC looked at its database it found 3,000 names with zip codes in Harlem. “They didn’t realize the extent of the overlap,” she said. “They jumped into the pool with us.”
The JCC embraced the challenge with great enthusiasm. It has met with local Harlem officials and is exploring programs with organizations like the Police Athletic League and the Harlem School of the Arts. It has also reached out to fellow Jewish organizations such as PJ Library, Lab/Shul, Beineinu and Romemu and the Harlem Minyan.
JCC Harlem is a 6,000-square-foot event space and does not have a gym or pool, although the occasional yoga and Pilates classes are offered. It is also exploring after school programs with Harlem Hebrew and other schools. It does not offer memberships, but charges for individual programs.
The Federation spent $440,000 to get it up and running and will support it for at least the first two years. The Federation plans to open such satellite facilities in other emerging neighborhoods. “You won’t see us slowing down,” Rabbi Joselow added.
Rabbi Joselow said that the historic nature of Harlem as a Jewish community was not a factor in settling on the Harlem location, but the history is inescapable. In the early 1900s, Harlem was the home of numerous synagogues, cheders, JCCs, Jewish businesses and some 175,000 Jews. By 1930, that number was down to 5,000 and kept dropping through the years. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that a significant number of young Jewish families, priced out of much of Manhattan, began discovering Harlem as a safe and affordable place to live.
Among the first events at the new JCC Harlem was a book talk by Jeffrey Gurock, the author of The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline, and Revival of a Jewish Community (NYU Press, 2016). He marveled at the new facility. “This JCC is a throwback to another time,” Gurock said. “Harlem is once again an up-and-coming Jewish neighborhood.”
Ari L. Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is an editorial consultant for CONTACT. He is the author of four books, including The Search for God at Harvard and The Late Starters Orchestra.