Musings: A Dispersed Jewish Populace
It was no surprise when I learned last month that Congregation Beth Tífillah of Overbrook Park was pursuing a merger with another synagogue. It was unfortunate news. Overbrook Park was once heavily Jewish and the Jewish presence there has diminished considerably over the years.
That story is being played out in many places, contributing to a diaspora within a diaspora. American Jews have become more and more dispersed and a sense of connection has become greatly diluted.
In Philadelphia, I grew up in West Oak Lane and often visited Wynnefield and Overbrook, where I had friends and relatives. The first two neighborhoods have no Jewish community of note and I was told that Overbrook is probably 10 to 20 percent Jewish. The Jewish presence in Northeast Philadelphia has certainly shrunk.
The Jewish population has been pushing out from the city to the suburbs for a long time, of course. In the case of Philadelphia, I figure that in the next generation or two Jewish Philadelphians moving north will meet Jewish New Yorkers in Princeton and Philadelphia Jews heading west will move next door to Pittsburgh Jews in Chambersburg.
So it is New York. In my periodic trips there, I visited the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx a few times in the past year. I endured the hour-long subway ride the first time because of what sounded like an interesting event. I noticed stark changes there since I spent part of a weekend in that area during the mid-seventies.
Back then, on a Saturday afternoon, I accompanied a friend who dropped off another friend at JFK for a flight to Europe. After we dropped him off, my friend drove to a cousinís apartment somewhere near Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road in the east-center section of the Bronx very close to where the Bronx Zoo is located.
The family allowed us to stay over and the next day one of their daughters showed me around the neighborhood. It was the first time I ever visited one of these gritty Jewish neighborhoods. I vaguely remember that the community was heavily Jewish and there were plenty of Jewish foods and other staples to suggest a strong Jewish culture there. While neighborhoods like West Oak Lane had many Jewish bodies, the sense of Jewish culture was not quite as strong.
During my recent visits, the Jewish presence in the Pelham Parkway was much diluted, though it was still there. A woman active with the Pelham Parkway Jewish Center explained to me that a great many Jews had moved out over the years.
The neighborhood threw an annual party for itself in mid-September called the Shalom Pelham Parkway Festival that featured musical performers, food stands and display tables. The majority of the few hundred participants were elderly.
At one table, rabbinical student Juan Mejia told me how he grew up in Colombia and now leads services at Temple Emanuel, a Conservative synagogue in the Parkchester section of the southeastern Bronx which is now way too small to hire a fulltime rabbi. He told me that his command of Spanish is helpful because many residents, and some congregants, are Spanish-speaking.
Mejia was featured in a New York Daily News article a few weeks later which reported that the synagogue had 500 members 45 years ago, whereas now there are 26 paid members and 60 alumni members. Where did their children and grandchildren go? The obvious suspects are the suburbs, more affluent New York neighborhoods, Boca Raton, Vermont, Israel and so on.
Something important is being lost here. The more we have concentrated Jewish communities, the closer the Jewish people can be to one another. The more we are spread apart, the less we can connect with one another. Friends have told me that, yes, they feel separated from the larger Jewish community. This dispersion encourages intermarriage because choices for single Jewish men and women narrow considerably when they live in Jewish communities that are spread thin.
Before I checked into the tip about the Beth Tífillah merger, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. It is always painful when I learn of the pending closing of a proud Jewish institution, and it is even more painful when I think of the larger pattern that it reflects.
(See related article in September 2005 issue.)