By Reyna Stovall FCLC’25
On September 18th, the Fordham University’s Center for Jewish Studies hosted a walking tour of the Jewish Bronx with Julian Voloj, a photographer and author, whose photographs will be on display at the Walsh Family Library from October 20, 2022. The group explored the neighborhood along the Grand Concourse to learn about historic buildings that were once cornerstones of the Jewish Community.
The Bronx in the 1930s through the early 1950s was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the United states. The South Bronx alone had some 360,000 Jews, 260 registered synagogues, and, according to Dr. Seymour J. Perlin, at least twice as many unregistered ones. Since then, most Jews have moved to the suburbs, although Riverdale in the South Bronx still has a fairly large Jewish community of more than 20,000 people. Despite the drastic decrease in the Bronx Jewish population, remnants of the old communities that once dominated the borough can still be found today.
Our tour kicked off at the Heinrich Heine Fountain where our guide, Julian Voloj, recounted his own experiences of the Bronx and gave some general descriptions of the vibrant Jewish past that once stood where we’d be walking. The fountain was originally designed to commemorate Heinrich Heine’s birth centenary and be placed in Düsseldorf, the birthplace of the famous German Jewish poet, in 1897, but it was rejected by the city council and brought to New York, finding its way to the Bronx in 1899.
After quick photos of the beautiful fountain that greeted us at the beginning of our tour, we began our walk down Grand Concourse avenue, stopping to view the gorgeous Bronx County Courthouse, before making our way to our first official stop, on Morris Avenue, Bronx Christian Charismatic Prayer Fellowship Inc. which is housed at what used to be a synagogue. While the Star of David that was once on the roof of the building is no longer there, other Jewish imagery, such as inscriptions on the building itself and stars of David on the window bars, still remain. While Julian Voloj was pointing out some of this imagery, the pastor, Andre Faison, came out of the building and introduced himself, providing more insight into the building’s history and how his congregation came to acquire it. It was a lovely and insightful surprise addition to the tour.
Walking around the Grand Concourse area, what surprised me the most was the hidden beauty that disguised itself behind a veil of urban development. Beautiful art deco buildings and small homes stood side by side, creating a mosaic of culture and history. I could only wonder as we walked past shops, churches, daycares, and homes about the layers of history each possessed. Did a Jewish family once own them? What would it have been like to see these buildings in the 1930s? What would those people think of the Bronx as it is today? These were only a few of the questions that ran through my mind as we walked through the Jewish Bronx.
My favorite stop on our tour had to be the House of the Daughters of Jacob home and hospital on E. 167th Street and Findlay Avenue. It towered above the street, looming over us in all its beauty. Compared to the other buildings we saw, it seemed by far the largest, probably magnified by its location, as it perched on the top of a hill. Like the church we had visited earlier, the Star of David that once sat on its roof is no longer there. But the Jewish symbolism is still very prominent, dominating the gates that lead up to the building itself. The ironwork twists into swirls ending in a Star of David as well as the name of the building itself. Beautifully, one member of our tour group recognized the building from old photos of her grandparents, who she discovered while on the tour had once lived their last days in the building.
To round out and end our tour, we stopped at the Andrew Freedman Home, which was created to be a retirement home for wealthy people who had lost their fortunes. It was owned and operated by former owner (1922) of the New York Giants and self-made millionaire Andrew Freedman. Over the years has served many purposes, including a home from German and Jewish refugees during the Second World War. Today the house is an active collaboration space where artists, entrepreneurs, technologists, and educators come together to work towards sustainable community development. While we weren’t permitted onto the campus due to filming that was occurring at the time, walking around the several block building allowed us to put into perspective the past and the present.
While many structures of the past still exist today, they are constantly changing and evolving to serve new functions, communities, and purposes. Some are even unrecognizable from their old forms. But if you look closely, they will tell you their story.
Reyna Stovall is a sophomore at Fordham College at Lincoln Center and a minor in Jewish Studies. She is currently holding an internship in Jewish Studies at the Walsh Family Library, where she is preparing an exhibition about Jewish life in the Bronx.