On the Rebound: Jewish Life in the Bronx


by S. Olidort - BRONX, NY

March 4, 2003

All that remains of the once thriving Jewish community in the Bronx section of New York City, is the relatively small, but vibrant neighborhood of Riverdale, home to some 40,000 Jews. And with its variety of shuls and Jewish day schools, the need for a Chabad presence here seems almost superfluous.

But on Saturday night 300 guests gathered at the Westchester Renaissance Hotel, to celebrate ten years of Chabad in Riverdale. "Riverdale is a rich and diversified Jewish community with the finest shuls and rabbis anywhere," said the event's chairman, Mr. Peter Kolevzon. "Yet Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his wife Sarah have impacted all of us since they came on the scene ten years ago. Thanks to their ceaseless efforts and outreach, they have enriched not only the Jews of Riverdale, but the existing congregations as well. Their love and embrace of every Jew is contagious, and we are all better for it."

When Rabbi Levi and Sara Shemtov set up house here back in 1993, their arrival evoked interest amongst community members. The Shemtovs weren't here solely to bring traditional Judaism to Riverdale; there already was a contingent of Orthodox people here, and several traditional houses of worship. Their goal, says Rabbi Shemtov, was to reach out to Riverdale's non-affiliated community, while imbuing traditional Jewish activities with an added dimension of joyousness and spirituality, for those already involved.

During their first Purim here Chabad organized a live music band--Piamenta--a welcome addition to the traditional Purim activities. Ever since, this and other such enhancements have been adopted across the neighborhood.

Chabad devoted most of its first few years here to weekly, even daily classes on a whole gamut of Jewish topics, and humanitarian aid activities like hospital and nursing home visitations. Then, six years ago the Shemtovs purchased a building and classes were moved into the new Chabad House, along with a comprehensive Jewish library and offices. And in 1999, an expanded Chabad House grew to include a shul, which now hosts close to one hundred people on a typical Shabbos.

Another big breakthrough for Chabad and the entire local community, came with the opening three years ago, of the Gan Israel Day Camp, with thirty-five children. Last summer registration reached 90 campers, and the Shemtovs are confident that the numbers will increase come next summer. But what makes the day camp so outstanding here, says Sara Shemtov, isn't just the number of children who attend. It's the mix of children—strictly observant children camping with secular children in an exciting Jewish atmosphere, gives camp its unique flavor and makes it appealing to so many.

The camp, notes Rabbi Shemtov, served as the perfect springboard for increasing youth programs, and Chabad's preschool, which began last year with six children has some twenty children currently enrolled. Other programs include Mommy & Me Music, for children, and frequent Shabbatons that feature renowned Jewish lecturers and scholars, and draw as many as three hundred people over the weekend.

Chabad's tenth anniversary dinner was planned by a committee of fifteen community members who organized a "supper in concert," featuring the Andy Statman Trio live in concert. The program began with two simultaneous classes delivered by noted lecturers Rabbi Yossi Jacobson and Mrs. Esther Piekarski, followed by a video presentation summing up Chabad's activities in Riverdale in the course of the last ten years.

Rabbi Shemtov introduced the dinner's guest of honor, Marilyn Sofer, who, together with her late husband was among Chabad's first supporters here. Mrs. Sofer expressed her gratefulness for having had the foresight to become involved with the Shemtovs, and her sense of pride at the results of the past decade.

Ezra House, a partially retired businessman, was on the planning committee for the dinner, and attributes the evening's fantastic success to Chabad's wide appeal, pointing to the Shemtovs' determination, and Levi's abundant energy. "Whatever they do, whether it’s a Lag B'omer event in the park, or a Menorah lighting in the center of town, Chabad reaches out and involves the entire community, always determined to do whatever it'll take to make Jewish observance an enlightening and meaningful experience for all."

Photo Credits: Jar Bar-David

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