Vestiges of Harlem’s Jewish Past
ON the map of the Jewish diaspora, Harlem is Atlantis. That it was once the third largest Jewish settlement in the world after the Lower East Side and Warsaw — a vibrant hub of industry, artistry and wealth — is all but forgotten. It is as if Jewish Harlem sank 70 years ago beneath the waves of memory, beyond recall.
At least until you spy the Star of David medallions atop the Baptist Temple Church. Or the cornerstone of the Mount Neboh Baptist Church that says it was built in 5668. Or the marble pediment leading to the baptismal pool at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, on which is inscribed the Old Testament verse: ”Jehovah is in his holy temple; be silent, before him, all the earth.”
In its churches, of all places, Harlem reveals its Jewish past.
”This is their homeland, too,” said Michael Henry Adams, a preservationist and the author of ”Harlem Lost and Found, An Architectural and Social History: 1765-1915,” to be published by the Monacelli Press.
Few structures in New York so poignantly reflect the layering of history as its houses of worship. While the best known among them — Abyssinian Baptist Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Temple Emanu-El, Trinity Church — are still used by the denominations that built them, most have changed hands over time.
The synagogues of Harlem have served as Christian churches far longer than they were used for Jewish worship. But the story of a richly inflected part of town is told through stained-glass Stars of David, Ten Commandments tablets, Middle Eastern filigree and silent vestiges of Orthodox Judaism like women’s balconies.
”There are steps in the evolution of the American synagogue here,” said Jeffrey S. Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and the author of ”When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870-1930” (Columbia University Press, 1979).
Standing near the corner of Fifth Avenue and 116th Street, Dr. Gurock can imagine worshipers filling the broad thoroughfares during High Holy Days.
Behind him is the Baptist Temple Church, 18 West 116th Street, built in 1906 for Congregation Ohab Zedek. In this enormous synagogue, a Hungarian group that had come from the Lower East Side hired its first English-speaking rabbi and thrilled worshipers by introducing Yossele Rosenblatt as its cantor. Across 116th Street, at No. 37, is the Salvation and Deliverance Church. This was once Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein’s Institutional Synagogue, which drew new generations to Orthodoxy by offering social, educational and recreational services, inspiring a phenomenon known as the ”shul with the pool.” Goldstein held huge youth rallies in a nearby theater.
Just visible in the distance are the turrets of the Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ, 25 West 118th Street, built in 1900 for Congregation Shaare Zedek. At this building, Dr. Gurock said, Central and Eastern European Jews came together.
Around World War I, Dr. Gurock said, about 175,000 Jews lived in Harlem, including his father’s family, which was in a tenement at Park Avenue and 100th Street. Within the next 20 years, the Jewish population had almost entirely dispersed.
While researching his dissertation on Jewish Harlem in the mid-70’s, Dr. Gurock paid a call on the tiny Congregation Tikvath Israel at 160 East 112th Street. Nine men had gathered there from the housing project across the street — just one shy of the quorum, or minyan, needed for a service. ”It’s like a miracle,” Dr. Gurock recalls the rabbi saying as he entered. ”Every time we have services, someone shows up and makes it possible.”
Tikvath Israel is now Christ Apostolic Church of U.S.A. No wider than a brownstone, its modest architecture discloses the gulf between the working-class Jews of East Harlem, whose synagogues were as plain as those on the Lower East Side, and the middle-class residents of Central Harlem, who constructed synagogues that proudly, even lavishly, proclaimed their arrival in society.
Before Tikvath Israel moved in, the four-story building had been home to Congregation Ansche Chesed, which went on to build one of the grandest synagogues in Harlem, at 1883 Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard), on the corner of 114th Street.
Designed by Edward I. Shire, Ansche Chesed has a neo-Classical porch behind six tall columns supporting a pediment with a decalogue, representing the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The cornerstone is incised with the dual dates of 1908 and 5668, on the Hebrew calendar.
Today that same porch is used for outdoor summertime services by its current owner, the Mount Neboh Baptist Church. Inside, the building reveals yet another heritage as the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a Spanish parish, in the mid-20th century. Around the tall arched windows in the barrel-vaulted sanctuary are elaborate hand-painted yellow-and-blue tiles with floral patterns, cherubs and medallions of such important saints and patrons as Our Lady of High Grace, Our Lady of the Angels and St. Catherine Labouré.
(Perhaps only one other Manhattan sanctuary, St. Ann’s Shrine and Armenian Catholic Cathedral at 110 East 12th Street, has served Jews, Catholics and Protestants.)
Mount Neboh Baptist Church, founded in 1937, moved to 114th Street in 1980 because it had outgrown its home farther uptown. Recently, it built a sound booth in the former organ loft and created a choir stall that extends into the niche where the ark once stood. The music of Mount Neboh attracts visitors from around the world.
The church has now outgrown even this large sanctuary, said the Rev. Richard Watkins, who has been the pastor for 14 years. That has required the addition of a second Sunday morning service.
Though the 94-year-old building needs work, Mr. Watkins said the congregation was committed to remaining there and renovating as needed. ”We would not be able to build a church like this today,” he said. ”The way this building was built, there is no need to worry about it. It will hold.”
As for Ansche Chesed, it moved to 251 West 100th Street, at West End Avenue, where it remains to this day in another building designed by Shire. Most of the prominent congregations of Harlem wound up on the Upper West Side: the Institutional Synagogue at 120 West 76th Street, Ohab Zedek at 118 West 95th Street, Shaare Zedek at 212 West 93rd Street and Temple Israel at 210 West 91st Street. The Mount Neboh Synagogue moved to the Upper West Side from 562 West 150th Street, a building that is now the City Tabernacle Seventh-day Adventist Church. (The Mount Neboh Synagogue, which closed in 1978, is unrelated to the Mount Neboh Baptist Church except in a name that commemorates the place from which the Bible says Moses first saw the Promised Land.)
Mount Olivet Baptist Church, at 120th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard), was built in 1907 as Temple Israel. Its four trunklike Corinthian columns could be mistaken for something out of imperial Rome were it not for the Stars of David nestled in their leafy capitals. The synagogue was designed by Arnold W. Brunner, architect of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, at Central Park West and 70th Street.
After a brief spell as an Adventist church, Temple Israel was acquired in 1925 by Mount Olivet, one of the oldest and most influential black congregations of New York, which had previously been in mid-Manhattan.
”Our people were coming up this way, there were no black churches on Lenox Avenue and they needed the additional space,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Curtis, the senior pastor since 1990. ”I’m glad we walked into a building that was used for religious purposes.”
Mount Olivet, which traces its beginnings to 1876, has more than 1,000 members. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe spoke there in 2000. In recent years, it has rewired the church, installed an elevator and a new boiler, built a ramp for the disabled and laid down new floors and carpets.
But apart from painting the main sanctuary, it has left that chamber intact and entirely recognizable as the synagogue it once was, all the way to the Star of David fanlights atop the 11 stained-glass window bays that fill the space with glorious hues of emerald, amber and cornflower blue. Because their faith, too, is rooted in the Old Testament, Christian congregations can fairly easily adopt Jewish sanctuaries. About the Jehovah inscription at the front of the church, from the Book of Habakkuk, Dr. Curtis said, ”We have the same view.”
Sometimes, however, ingenuity is required in the transformation. At Mount Olivet, the marble pediment and columns of the ark were left in place, but its gold doors now open to a baptismal pool rather than to the Torah scrolls. As such, it remains a focal point of worship.
Not every synagogue has fared nearly so well. Temple B’nai Israel at 610 West 149th Street was abandoned for several years before becoming the Gospel Missionary Baptist Church. During that period vandals walked off with lion’s-head ornaments and stripped the copper off of its dome. As a preservationist, Mr. Adams hopes a renewed focus on Harlem’s Jewish heritage might bring in badly needed resources to help restore former synagogues.
”It would be wonderful,” he said, ”if these enormous and in some instances derelict houses of worship could get some infusion of money from the people whose ancestors built them.”
At the Baptist Temple Church on 116th Street, the Rev. Anthony W. Mann may seek outside support. He hopes to create an endowment to restore the sanctuary, which was ravaged by fire in 1965. A false ceiling was built at the balcony level, closing off the soaring upper half of the space.
This hidden space is amazing in its dimension and decrepitude, stripped to brick, timber and steel columns. The frames of the Tudor-style arched windows are still evident, but cinder blocks now replace glass.
The Baptist Temple Church was founded in 1899 by congregants who had left Mount Olivet. It acquired the Ohab Zedek synagogue in 1938. In Mr. Mann, the small congregation has found a pastor with a connection to Judaism: he said he grew up in the Bronx attending synagogue on Saturdays (one of his grandfathers was Jewish) and church on Sundays.
He dreams of a rebuilt Baptist Temple sanctuary as glorious as in the days of Ohab Zedek, with stained glass in the sealed-up windows and gold stars on the ceiling. Meanwhile, the great chamber, empty except for pigeons and mice, is its own Atlantis: Breathtaking. Venerable. Ruined. Hidden. Waiting.
At least a dozen Harlem churches are in former synagogues, most built after the turn of the 20th century and given up by Jewish congregations in the 1920’s. Among the most prominent are:
BAPTIST TEMPLE CHURCH, 18 West 116th Street. Originally Congregation Ohab Zedek.
BETHEL WAY OF THE CROSS CHURCH OF CHRIST, 25 West 118th Street. Originally Congregation Shaare Zedek.
CHRIST APOSTOLIC CHURCH OF U.S.A., 160 East 112th Street. Formerly Congregation Tikvath Israel, and before that, Congregation Ansche Chesed.
CITY TABERNACLE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH, 562 West 150th Street. Originally Mount Neboh Synagogue.
GOSPEL MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, 610 West 149th Street. Originally Temple B’nai Israel.
MOUNT NEBOH BAPTIST CHURCH, 1883 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Formerly Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Originally Congregation Ansche Chesed.
MOUNT OLIVET BAPTIST CHURCH, 201 Malcolm X Boulevard. Originally Temple Israel.
SALVATION AND DELIVERANCE CHURCH, 37 West 116th Street. Formerly the Institutional Synagogue.