Originally appeared on BronxInk.org on Dec. 20, 2011.
Joseph Feinberg tapped away at his cell phone as he crossed the bustling intersection that serves as the centerpiece for the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. His slim-fit trousers were black like his hair and his unkempt sideburns. He wore a tiny wool yarmulke on his head.
As he stepped into the front doors of the new kosher bakery on 231st Street, Feinberg, 23, said he was well aware that he stuck out in the predominantly elderly, Dominican and African-American neighborhood.
“You usually don’t too see many young Jews like me hanging out around here,” said Feinberg, who lives 15 minutes up the hill in Riverdale but has recently begun driving down to Kingsbridge to get coffee, check his email and eat lunch at the bakery because he likes the falafels. “I guess that makes me a trendsetter.”
A new wave of gentrification in the area near 231st Street west of Broadway has begun to breath fresh life into Kingsbridge’s long-declining Jewish community, and may signal a possible reversal to the nearly four decade long trend of Jews leaving the neighborhood for more affluent, outlying suburban areas.
Between 1991 and 2002 alone, the number of people living in Jewish households in the Bronx plunged from 90,000 to 54,300, according to estimates from the UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Survey. That’s a more than 40 percent decline.
In Kingsbridge, Jewish community leaders have long feared that the neighborhood could soon lose what’s left of its long-dwindling Jewish population, and suffer a fate similar to that of countless other neighborhoods across the Bronx that have been forced to close their last synagogues.
“For a while there, it looked like we wouldn’t have much of a Jewish population anymore in Kingsbridge at all,” said 67-year-old Jason Rosenberger, an Orthodox Jew who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his life. “The younger Jews were moving away to start families, and the older ones were dying out.”
But at the Kingsbridge Center of Israel. the neighborhood’s only remaining synagogue, membership and attendance are on the rise for the first time in nearly 20 years. Around 60 worshippers gathered at a recent Saturday service at the Modern Orthodox synagogue on Corlear Avenue, up from an all-time-low of 15 people per week two years ago.
Meanwhile, just around the corner on 231st Street, two new kosher delis and a bagel shop have opened up in the span of the last three years alone, establishing a solid stock of Jewish-owned eateries in a neighborhood where it might previously have been a stretch to find a falafel.
“It’s like a new little Jewish renaissance popping up here in Kingbsridge,” Rabbi David Jonas at the Kingsbridge Center of Israel said. “It’s been an explosion.”
It’s unclear exactly how many Jewish residents may have recently relocated to Kingsbridge, or how many might be simply spending more time there, since the U.S. Census does not track religious affiliations.
But the recent flurry of construction projects in the 231st Street area –– including two new luxury condominium buildings, the recently constructed Kingsbridge Public Library and the new TD Bank branch at the corner of Corlear Avenue –– suggest the neighborhood may have enough steam to keep attracting more young Jews and new residents in general.
Developers said the neighborhood’s proximity to new retail shopping and the recently renovated Kingsdbridge subway station, along with its low cost of rent and closer access to the city make Kingsbridge an attractive new place for younger residents to live.
“Kingsbridge is the place people are picking these days to live comfortably for less, especially young families,” said Rutherford Thompson, a managing director at Jackson Capital Partners Corp., the sales and leasing agent for Sycamore Court Condominium, a 63-unit building that opened recently at the corner of 231st and Corlear Avenue. “Almost half our interested buyers have been families who are new to the area. It’s unbelievable.”
Just across the street from Sycamore, construction for the Pancas condo building at 3120 Corlear was recently completed. The building will house a charter school on the first three floors and 48 condos in the top seven floors.
The new living spaces and charter school will help solve two longstanding barriers to Kingsbridge’s revitalization by increasing the available stock of spacious family-sized housing units and giving parents another option of where to send their children to school, Thompson said.
“The one thing that’s been holding up people from coming here is that there hasn’t been enough of the type of housing available that would accomodate a new family with the potential for growth,” Thompson said. “The new condominiums should solve that, and bring a better range of schools to the neighborhood as well.”
A RETURN TO ROOTSAs the oldest living member of Kingsbridge’s synagogue, Sol Lieman, 86, has witnessed the changing demographic patterns of Jewish residents in Kingsbridge and the Bronx for nearly five decades.
Lieman first moved with his wife and kids to Kingbsridge in 1963, making them one of the last young Jewish families to settle in the neighborhood during what he calls “the boom period”. When the Liemans first started attending the synagogue, around 500 members would often come out for regular weekly services, Lieman said.
“I had assumed other Jewish families with kids would be following us, but they didn’t,” said Lieman, who is now the only Jew left in his Riverdale Avenue apartment building located four blocks from the Kingsbridge synangogue. “The other Jews here went elsewhere, and we were steadily pushed into the minority.”
In 1948, there were more Jews in the Bronx — 650,000 — than in the entire State of Israel. By 2003, just 45,000 were left in the entire borough, according to the most recent Jewish Community Study conducted in 2002 by UJA-Federation.
In keeping with the broader middle-class population at the time, Jews in Kingsbridge began moving primarily to Riverdale as well as outlying suburban areas in the 1970s and ‘80s as a way to claim their own turf on the outskirts of the city and escape the onslaught of low-rent occupants and slumlords in the south Bronx.
But experts said the division between Riverdale and Kingsbridge may have less to do with geography and more to do with the development of cultural stereotypes.
At Yeshiva University, Jeffrey S. Gurock, of Riverdale, is a professor of Jewish history. Grurock said the rapid movement of Jews up the hill from Kingsbridge into Riverdale during the late ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s eventually gave rise to an imaginary geographic boundary based on the shape of the hill itself.
“What pervaded was this sense that Riverdale was the land of liberal, open-minded, middle-class families, while Kingsbridge, despite being just a five minute walk down the hill, was a place where elderly Jews were slowly being encroached upon by various other minority populations,” Gurock said.
Gurock said that because Jews chose to stay in Riverdale for the coming decades they developed a “sense of turf” about the place, making it less likely they would relocate elsewhere.
“Kingsbridge never had the cachet of Riverdale, and it still doesn’t today. That imaginary border between the two neighborhoods has grown so strong over the years that it would now be almost impossible to undo,” Gurock said.
But for the 86-year-old Lieman’s two adult sons, who both live on 96th Street in Manhattan, the imaginary divide between Kingsbridge and Riverdale may already be beginning to crumble. The two brothers had planned on moving to Riverdale in the early part of next year, but recently decided to look for an apartment in Kingsbridge instead.
“I think there will be a lot more people like them who start realizing soon that they can live in Kingsbridge with the same amenities as Riverdale or Manhattan but for half the price,” Lieman said. “I think it’s already happening.”
Across the street from the synagogue on Corlear Avenue, a turn-of-the-century single family home was recently restored to make room for new tenants.
BACK DOWN THE HILLA shiny new blue metal sign was erected six months ago outside the Kingsbridge Center of Israel as a way to remind people that the synagogue is doing well these days. A message on the synagogue’s website reads ‘COME SEE WHAT ALL THE BUZZ IS ABOUT.’
Rabbi Jonas, 25, is the youngest rabbi to lead the Kingsbridge Center of Israel since the synagogue was founded in 1934. When former shul leaders nearly closed the synagogue two years ago in response record-low attendance and financial problems, Jonas stepped in as the church’s new Rabbi to see if he could possibly turn things around.
“When I came in as Rabbi, the synagogue had been running straight in the red for almost 20 years,” Jonas said. “Luckily, we finally managed to break even last year.”
Although Jonas said he does deserve some credit for getting the synagogue back on solid financial ground, he attributed the bulk of the synagogue’s recent success to changing perceptions about the Kingbsridge neighborhood taking place within the Bronx’s Jewish community.
“All the new development happening in the area is causing people to reconsider all the stereotypes they were taught about Kingsbridge when they were growing up,” Jonas said. “That warning that all our parents gave us ‘not go down the hill’ is starting to lose its effect.”
Jonas and his wife Natalie have yet to move down the hill to Kingsbridge themselves, but Jonas said they have considered making the move eventually.
Like Jonas, many of the synangogue’s new members actually live in Central Riverdale and have chosen to start attending the lone Kingsbridge shul rather than any one of the nine Jewish congregations in Riverdale.
“It’s a bit more of an intimate feel here, and now that Kingsbridge has started to turn around as an entire area, Jewish families from up the hill are more open to making the commute to join us here,” Jonas said.
Moshe Zachs, a Jewish small business owner who lives just on the other side of Riverdale Avenue, opened Cafecino, a kosher bakery, deli and coffee shop, on 231st Street in Kingsbridge earlier this year.
Zachs, 52, said he’s seen a steady flow of business at the bakery since it opened in January, with Jews from Riverdale coming to the shop either as a destination for kosher food items, or as a quick stop on the one-train during their daily commute.
“I’m not sure any of the Jews from Riverdale are actually spending much time here yet, but I’m sure they will in time if the neighborhood keeps improving,” Zachs said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Younger generations of Jewish residents Kingsbridge said they may also feel more compelled to stay in Kingsbridge to raise a family one day if the revitalization trend continues.
Jake Dorfman, 21, lives a block away from the Kingsbridge Center of Israel on Tibbett Avenue. He said he’s noticed that his Jewish friends from Riverdale have become increasingly more open to the idea of walking down the street in Kingsbridge alone at night.
“Kingsbridge is getting safer and nicer all the time,” Dorfman said. “To me, it’s like a new and improved Washington Heights. I think it’s only a matter of time before people outside the community start picking up on Kingsbridge and realizing what’s going on, then you’ll see peple moving here almost overnight.”
But Dorfman said he’s in no hurry for the crowds to arrive. He enjoys the pizza at Cafeccino Bakerty too much to start having to wait in line for it with others.
“It’s fantastic pizza, really,” Dorfman said. “It’s the kind of pizza that would make you say, ‘Hey, I want to move my family here and live forever’.”
To contact writer Carl V. Lewis, call (912) 816-7007.