Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg never meant to find himself in Harlem. Two years ago, buoyed by decades of news reports on inner-city violence, his impressions of the northern Manhattan neighborhood as downtrodden and crime-ridden didn't solicit his visit. But when the wrong bus back from the airport landed him at 125th Street, he took a walk that not only changed his mind, but would soon trail blaze the revival of Harlem's Jewish community.

"I started walking around Seventh Avenue and was inspired," says Gansbourg, now co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Harlem, which he founded with his wife, Goldie Gansbourg. "I saw a nice Starbucks, plenty of boutiques, nice shops and businesses."

Many people still associate the Harlem of today with the crime-ridden and drug-infested locale that was the epitome of urban neglect through most of the late 20th century. But, as Gansbourg found, the neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth of late. Former President Bill Clinton even set up his post-White House office there in 2001.

Up until World War I, Harlem was seen as an attractive living area by New Yorkers, but overcrowding soon led to its deterioration, culminating with a riot by residents in 1935. In the late 1990s, however, situations changed with the city's reconstruction of the transportation system and the growth of the local city college. Fueled by a $300 million largesse by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the neighborhood finally embarked on an ambitious revitalization.

At the time of his discovery, Gansbourg, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, was a 50-year-old businessman in the publishing industry. But, having considerable experience and interest in Jewish education and renewal, his stroll through what he calls "an up and coming area" meant one thing.

"I started thinking to myself," he says, "there have to be Jews here."

Sure enough, when the rabbi looked a little bit closer at the buildings, he saw Stars of David embedded in the stone walls of local churches.

An Ongoing Search

Goldie Gansbourg helps a Jewish student in Harlem shake the lulav and etrog during Sukkot.
Goldie Gansbourg helps a Jewish student in Harlem shake the lulav and etrog during Sukkot.
In the early 1900's, low post-war housing prices attracted swarms of Eastern European Jews. By 1917, Harlem's Jewish population reached a peak of 150,000. The growth, however, ebbed with Congress' passage in 1921 of a quota on Eastern European immigrants. At the same time, as they became more affluent, many of Harlem's Jews moved to the Upper West Side.

By 1930, Harlem's Jewish population fell to 5,000 and has only dwindled ever since. Today, only hundreds remain. Just one still-functioning synagogue and several churches housed in former shuls remain of the neighborhood's past Jewish infrastructure.

In his search for the few Jews in a multicultural sea of mainly African-American and Hispanic residents, Gansbourg wound up at the City College of New York. The college, which sits atop a hill overlooking the entire neighborhood, has a reputation for its diversity, with 14,000 students representing 127 countries. More than two-thirds of the students enrolled are considered minorities.

"I started to explore, looking around and seeing what would happen," says Gansbourg.

Right before Passover in 2005, Gansbourg contacted City College student activist Sergey Kadinsky to inquire into the number of Jewish students.

"He told me there was barely a small group and that he did not think there would be much interest," the rabbi recalls.

But inspired by a teaching from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory – to the effect that every single Jew should be sought out with the same attention that their enemies once had in hunting them down – Gansbourg came up with a plan.

With the help of some City College students and the support of engineering Professor David Rumschitzki, Gansbourg posted flyers around campus announcing that he would be giving out complimentary special hand-baked matzah known as shmura matzah for Passover. When 20 calls came in, Gansbourg decided that he was there to stay.

Two years later, the Gansbourgs are pioneering an obvious revival of Jewish life in Harlem. With a campus and community post just blocks from the City College – given by real estate developer Baruch Singer – and a host of community programs, Jews are slowly coming out of the local brownstone homes to take part in the making of the first active Jewish community since 1930.

Building From the Ground Up

Chabad-Lubavitch of Harlem’s Chanukah menorah at the City College of New York
Chabad-Lubavitch of Harlem’s Chanukah menorah at the City College of New York
Laura Visocheck, 18, is an international studies student from New York City who lives in the City College dorms. At the onset of her freshman year, she was surprised by the lack of Jewish activity and felt lost.

"I was just a lonely freshman," she says. "I didn't have access to anything."

Everything changed, however, when she noticed a flier for a Sukkot event hosted by the Gansbourgs.

"I went, and it was amazing," she says. "I got to meet a lot of Jewish students that I would not have otherwise met. It's wonderful to be a part of so many different people forming a new community."

For Visochek, the Chabad House is a link to maintaining a strong Jewish identity during her college years.

"It's nice to be able to light Shabbat candles and have a home cooked meal," she says. "That's something that certainly doesn't happen in my dorm room."

Civil engineering graduate student Ahron Derman, 24, remembers when there was no active Jewish leadership at City College. He credits the Gansbourgs with providing a "real boost" to Jewish life there.

"You see a lot more kippahs on campus these days," says Derman, using the Hebrew word for the skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish men. "And we went from having no minyan to having one every day. A Jewish community is definitely being built up, and it's really exciting."

Marvin Gutlove, 57, was born in Harlem and graduated from City College in 1968. He currently owns a shop right across from the campus, where he joyfully watches the revival of Jewish life.

"There was no Chabad at the college in my day" he relates, "and if someone would have told me that there would someday be a Sukkah or menorah on campus, I never would have believed it.

"It used to be that if you wore a yarmulke, you would put a hat on to cover it up," he continues. "No one was bold enough to show their Judaism."

Beyond the College

But while the Gansbourgs' outreach is anchored to the college, they are quick to exchange contact information with any Jewish Harlemite they come across. They keep them updated about the community and invite them to services and events.

"Every Jew I find is another diamond," says Goldie Gansbourg. "It's like going to explore the oil in the ground."

Patty Munter, 43, didn't even have to meet the Gansbourgs to get involved. The grant writer had only been living in Harlem for two weeks when she received a compelling phone call.

"Rabbi Gansbourg literally just called me up and introduced himself," remembers Munter. "He told me what he was doing. I had no idea. I was overjoyed."

Munter, whose grandparents had once lived in Harlem, enthusiastically offered to do whatever she could to help out. The following week, she was hosting a class on the Tanya, the fundamental Chasidic treatise by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the late 18th century, in her apartment.

For Paul Rodensky, the discovery of more Jewish residents is especially rewarding. Rodensky is president of the Old Broadway Shul, Harlem's only surviving Jewish synagogue. With a congregation dating back to 1911, Old Broadway has managed to endure through times when the thinning Jewish presence threatened its existence.

In the 1970s, the synagogue's minyan stopped functioning and, until recently, Shabbat services – attended in part by a handful of New York City singles looking for an old-fashioned experience – were the synagogue's only offering.

"But over the past five years, things have been picking up," says Rodensky, "Especially over the past two years."

Two and a half years ago, Shaya Gansbourg showed up to the shul for Selichot services in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Rodensky had already heard about him from Rumschitzki – now a faculty advisor to the Chabad Club at City College – who had praised the Gansbourgs for their positive influence on campus.

"I was thrilled to see another Jew in the synagogue," says Rodensky. "The Gansbourgs' presence is a sign that Jewish life is growing. The fact that Shaya and Goldie are willing to take the risk and get involved in developing Jewish life is an incredibly positive sign."

Gansbourg acknowledges the challenges in their work.

"There are other people who go out to communities where there are thousands of Jews," says Gansbourg. "Reaching out to 10 percent would be considered a smashing success. But Harlem is different. To succeed, we need the participation of every single Jew. Once that happens, we will count it as a success."

As for the future, the Gansbourgs envision what they call "a complete Jewish infrastructure" complete with kosher restaurants, a mikvah, Jewish education and a synagogue with activities around the clock.

"So we're very busy," says the rabbi, "and, with G‑d's help, we can change the world – one mitzvah at a time."