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Explore Harlem's Jewish History With Unique Walking Tour

By Gustavo Solis | September 11, 2015 11:14am | Updated on September 13, 2015 7:37pm
 An upcoming walking tour sheds light on some of Harlem's Jewish history. 
Jewish Harlem
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HARLEM — In the early 1900’s before the Harlem Renaissance, the third largest Jewish population in the world lived around 125th Street.

“It was a booming place,” said Laurie Tobias Cohen, executive director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. “It represented a step up from the life on the Lower East Side. The buildings were bigger, the buildings were newer, the streets were wider and the opportunity was greater.”

At the time there were more than 170,000 Jews and 150 synagogues in Harlem, many of which are now churches.

Historian Martin Shore will lead a walking tour of Harlem’s Jewish historical sites on Oct. 11.

“We walk around central Harlem talking about famous Jews that lived in Harlem, where they lived and stories about them, and some of the buildings that were built as synagogues,” said Shore, a retired teacher.

In some of the synagogues-turned-churches, like Mount Olivet Baptist Church on 120th Street and Lenox Avenue, the Star of David can still be seen on the façade.

Other notable Harlem churches that were built as synagogues include the Baptist Temple Church on 18 West 116th St., Mount Neboh Baptist Church on 1883 Seventh Ave., and Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ on 18 West 118th St.

Some of the famous Jewish residents include composer Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, mid-20th Century comedic actress Gertrude Berg, and Academy-award winning "On the Waterfront" screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Shore said.

The city’s Jewish population began moving north from the Lower East Side near the turn of the century. Those who could afford it ended up in the Upper East Side but those who could not kept going north.

“They were upper middle class but not wealthy enough to live on Fifth Avenue,” Shore said.

When they moved back south in the 1920s, Harlem's Jewish population took their congregations with them. Some of Harlem's historic synagogues are still active in the Upper West Side, Shore said.

The Lower East Side Conservancy hosts the tour. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $18 for students with a $2 discount if you preregister. 

Many of the participants are New Yorkers interested in Jewish history. Some are relatives of people who used to live in Harlem.

“Very often I have people in the tour who have personal stories,” Shore said. “We’ll change the route if they want to visit their grandparents’ home.”