Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock on his new book, The Jews of Harlem --
Harlem was the third largest Jewish community in the world, second only to the Lower East Side and Warsaw. If you walked the blocks of Harlem, every place you’d turn you’d see Jews. For brief shining moments it was an extraordinary Jewish community with all the institutions. That’s not to say it was entirely religious—people weren’t necessarily going into its many shuls, they were walking up and down the street on Jewish holidays looking to be seen. There’s more than one Harlem. There’s the working class Harlem, the middle class Harlem. From Zionist to radical to Orthodox to people who aren’t interested in religious life, Jews of every kind were moving uptown. By 1917, there were 175,000 Jews in Harlem—some rich and some poor—living in tenements on blocks that had more than 1,000 people per acre.
During World War I the city becomes very overcrowded as many African Americans and poor whites working in war industries moved in, and there is deterioration in existing neighborhoods. To combat this, New York City’s Board of Estimate offered 10 years free of real estate taxes to anyone who builds an apartment building in the outer boroughs or other parts of the City. Jews start moving to whole new areas like Flatbush, Boro Park, the Grand Concourse and so on, and as they move out, the areas they leave are filled by African Americans and Latinos.
Right now, Harlem is undergoing another major shift. There are more whites than African American in Harlem. That’s been the case for almost a decade. Jews are returning to Harlem, but Judaism as a religion has been slow to come back to a community that once had hundreds of synagogues and educational and cultural institutions. Most of these young gentrifiers are not particularly interested in maintaining their Judaism; it’s part of the general malaise of our times in America everywhere. However, on the positive side, there are a number of small start-up initiatives to be noted: a new Harlem Jewish Community Center, a Hebrew language charter school and of course, Chabad, which has been in the neighborhood for a decade. It’s only the beginning. Let’s see what happens.