Shabbos Shorts is an occasional series about Shabbos services at city synagogues, which are a window into contemporary Jewish life in New York.
Five men in kippot stood on the sidewalk in front of Old Broadway Synagogue waiting for a few more people to join their Shabbat service.
“Are you Jewish? Services start as soon as we have a minyan,” said Paul Radensky, the synagogue’s president. He wore a tallit draped over his white dress shirt and slacks.
Two elderly men in suits and kippot had rounded 125th Street and sauntered halfway up the block, giving the congregation the numbers they needed to get started.
Once inside, Radensky and a gabbai (synagogue official) rushed toward the bimah and began the mincha, the afternoon prayer service before Shabbat, at twice their normal speed.
“We’re running 14 minutes behind,” one congregant whispered.
Old Broadway is one of the only shuls in Harlem—and one of the few in Upper Manhattan from 110th Street to 175th Street. Members of the 106-year-old Orthodox congregation, founded by Russian and Polish Jews who migrated to New York during the 1880s, met in Harlem storefronts and reportedly the back of a bar before building their permanent house of worship in 1923.
Tucked on a side street on the far west side of Manhattan under the Seventh Avenue line’s steel structural arch, the two-story shul lives up to its name: It is a respite from the bustle of 125th Street and a relic of the Harlem Renaissance. The sanctuary’s eggshell-colored walls and lovely tin-paneled ceilings give the room the look of a roaring-’20s speakeasy if not for the 18 rows of wooden pews and a massive Torah-containing ark in the back. A skylight in the center of the roof lets in sunlight during the day, while electric candelabras on wooden posts help light the room at sundown. Tin panels also cover the roof under the second-floor balcony, which contains netting on the edge that resembles the material that protects baseball fans from being hit by foul balls.
No such injuries occurred during Shabbat, except for a minor case of whiplash from keeping up with the gabbai, who jumped around the siddur to recite prayers particular to festivals, since it was still Sukkot.
Once he finished the psalms, Radensky coaxed one of the elderly men, a rabbi visiting from Israel, to take over. The visitor donned a tallit and plowed through the remainder of the service at a normal speed.
Radensky then came to my row and pointed to the open page in my siddur, explaining we’d be skipping a few stanzas of a liturgical song. Several stragglers had arrived by this time, including two women, pushing our numbers up to 16.
The shul remains known for the work of its late rabbi, Jacob Kret, who recruited Holocaust survivors to join the temple in the 1950s and served as a Talmud tutor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Today, the congregation lives largely within 20 blocks of the West Harlem shul. It is also among the most diverse Orthodox congregations in the city. On the Friday I attended, half the minyan were African American and the congregants ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s.
Old Broadway is “between rabbis” right now, Radensky said, but it continues to retain a lively community looking for an intimate place to daven. About 60 attended Yom Kippur services the week before.
The Sukkot-shortened service ended after 40 minutes, and Radensky encouraged everyone to come to the sukkah for a light meal. Old Broadway’s sukkah is a permanent wooden annex directly behind the ark in a small alleyway on the east side of the property. Hemlock branches were strewn on its roof, and posters of Jerusalem’s Western Wall and the Jewish calendar were tacked onto its lime-green–painted walls. Normally the congregation uses the annex for storage.
A dozen people crammed around a table with plastic cups of grape juice as a young African American congregant led the kiddush. The sounds of the minyan’s “Shalom Aleichem” prayer rose above the sukkah roof and dispersed towards 125th Street.