Harlem: a hub of Jewish life?

“I think one thing we’ve learned early on is that we all as a Jewish community, we have to change our understanding of what the Jewish community looks like.”

The new JCC Harlem. (photo credit: DANIELLE ZIRI)
The new JCC Harlem.
(photo credit: DANIELLE ZIRI)
NEW YORK – Earlier this year, near the corner of West 118th Street and Manhattan Avenue in Harlem, Jewish families have welcomed a much awaited neighbor: a Jewish community center.
The 6,000-square-foot industrial-looking space, which seeks to foster Jewish life in the neighborhood, was presented to New York-based diplomats on Tuesday as part of a tour of Jewish Harlem organized by the American Jewish Committee.
JCC Harlem, established as a branch of the well-known JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, is undoubtedly the response to a long-time need for Harlem’s growing Jewish community.
“What has been really exciting for us in our early development is that so many of our community members have moved to Harlem with intention,” Meg Sullivan, director of programs and communications at JCC Harlem, told The Jerusalem Post. “They are excited about the vibrant life and Jewish life in Harlem and they want to be a part of that and help build Jewish community up here.”
According to Sullivan, since the center opened its doors in January 2017, about 100 families have become regular users of its “radically family-friendly” programs, beyond the thousands of people who have attended events on a more sporadic basis.
“I think one thing we’ve learned early on is that we all, as a Jewish community, have to change our understanding of what the Jewish community looks like,” she said. “We have so many families in Harlem that are multiracial, multi-faith and also identify Jewishly, and I think that they are moving to Harlem in particular because they see an opportunity to live the lives they would like to live.”
These families, she added, see JCC Harlem as “an opportunity to see their families reflected in a Jewish institution for the first time in their lives.”
Jews are not new to Harlem, however, according to Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University.
Gurock has written two books on the issue. In his last one, titled The Jews of Harlem, he traces a Jewish presence in the neighborhood as far back as the 1870s.
“Harlem had 175,000 Jews,” he said. “It was a very significant community, and a lot of things that happened in Harlem have resonance later on in Jewish history that people aren’t aware of.”
After World War I, Jews started to leave Harlem for new neighborhoods. But at the beginning of the new millennium, and with the gentrification and improved safety of Harlem in recent years, a revival of Jewish life in the area was triggered and is still in its early stages, Gurock explained.
“Jews and other whites and middle-class blacks are returning to Harlem,” he said. “They seem to be living very well together. There has been almost no sign of antisemitism in Harlem.”
Gurock pointed out that the last time a significant expression of antisemitism was recorded in Harlem was almost 20 years ago, when a store owned by a Jew was firebombed on 125th Street.
The only tension that exists there today, he told the Post, is mostly between the “Harlem old timers” and the “gentrifiers,” who are not necessarily Jewish.
Although Jews live very comfortably in Harlem, many of them tend to be disconnected from Jewish involvement and affiliation, Gurock said, not just by choice but also due to a lack of communal options.
“That’s why this JCC is so important,” he added. “It’s only the beginning. As someone who has lived the Harlem life and studied it for 40 years, it’s really exciting to watch it grow.”
Among Harlem’s few Jewish hubs are a Chabad House, a minyan group that is now holding services at the new JCC and a synagogue.
Four years ago, the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School was opened and began teaching children of all backgrounds, of whom the majority was not Jewish, to become fluent and literate in modern Hebrew.