In 2011, just before the mournful Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av, I headed up a tour of former synagogues in the Bronx, New York City.
The tour was based on my research of "lost synagogues" in the northernmost borough of New York City, and was organized by Rabbi M Fuchs, the spiritual leader of a synagogue on Cruger Avenue in the Bronx. The following year, during Tisha B'Av, we also conducted another tour of former synagogues in the Bronx, in a different section of this borough.

If you have read more than a few of my columns, you will know that this is a topic in which I specialize. It is not a happy subject, but it is a historically significant topic that brings together Jewish history, architecture and decorative arts, genealogy, demographic studies, and at urban history. Looking at former synagogues in New York City and elsewhere, I have also tied this into Tisha B'Av, drawing comparisons between the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples and the changes wrought upon buildings that once housed synagogues but have since been turned into our things: churches, schools, medical facilities, private residences, and more.

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This year I also ran a tour just a day prior to erev Tisha B'Av, and also in the Bronx. But I had retooled the tour I gave not only in July 2016 but also earlier this year (in late April), so that this time we started at a highly recognizable place (the Bronx County Courthouse, two blocks from the world-renowned Yankee Stadium baseball field) and walked northward, instead of starting about thirty blocks north and moving southward. This version was easier to walk, although we did not visit three large, still-beautiful former shuls located on the Grand Concourse.

My group and I stopped by more than ten former synagogues and Jewish institutions, visiting inside a few. Most are now churches, and one is now an art museum. One of the participants had actually celebrated his bar mitzvah ceremony in the best known of the former synagogues, the old Adath Israel on the Grand Concourse.

I enjoy leading this tour and the others, because it is a way for me to educate people in a hands-on fashion. I always learn something as well, either through participants on the tours or from people we run into. But I do recognize the bittersweet qualities to my tours. There are people who have found my tours and my work frankly depressing. And I understand their point of view.

The Jewish people have endured so many sad events, so many frustrations, so many challenges. But I am not one to shy away from the grit of our lives. And I realize that there is a sense of wonder for many people who join my tours, and/or a pull of nostalgia. People do want to learn about the past. People do long to place their experiences in a timeline, a continuum, and learning about "lost synagogues" is but one way to touch the past, learn from it, and if it happens to fit into the saddest days of the Jewish year (not just Tisha B'Av itself but also the Nine Days, and the Three Weeks that precede it) then so be it.

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