The founder of Riverdale Judaica, “Reb Yisroel,” as he likes to be known, was practically born with a sefer in hand. Born and bred in Crown heights, Yisroel is the product of the Lubavitch yeshiva system. Sefarim was his love and what he knew best. When he wanted to expand to his own store, he decided on Riverdale, where there was no competition. He even got a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Reb Yisroel was animated by a strong sense of mission. This was more than a store and a livelihood; it was spreading the light of yiddishkeit. A picture of the Rebbe hangs there, along with half a dozen books on Lubavitch themes, but “I’m not here to push Lubavitch.”
Yisroel believes a sefarim store is a spiritual anchor in a Jewish neighborhood. “When the sefarim store closes its like a light goes out in the neighborhood.”
Riverdale Judaica opened its doors to the community in the late 1980s and has been a Jewish anchor ever since. Reb Yisroel remembers the slower-paced Riverdale of old. People were very nice and delighted that now there was a sefarim store in their neighborhood.
Riverdale is no Crown Heights, but Reb Yisroel “learned how to adopt over the years.” His clientele includes every walk of life and religious stripe. Celebrities such as Joe Lieberman and author and activist Blue Greenberg are customers. “ I’ve been here long enough that everyone eventually comes here.” One of the most colorful patches in this tapestry is Spanish-speaking gentiles from the Dominican Republic who frequent the store. They love the Jewish people and believe they are partly Jewish. Yisroel speaks Spanish having lived in Argentina and stocks books in Spanish and modern Hebrew.
Over the years, secular Jews have come through the door to discuss Yiddishkeit and their own spiritual voyage. Reb Yisroel said he has helped some of these individuals come close to God and is very proud to have been part of their spiritual quest. This is part of his mission.
Riverdale Judaica is the oldest business on the block. He attributes this longevity to the rebbe’s blessing, the religious mission of a sforim store, and his deep sense of mission. The sefarim store reflects the personality of the neighborhood.. The store carries books that cater to a Modern Orthodox crowd, like works by Norman Lamm, Steinsaltz and myriad guides on how to deal with the modern world.
These days, it is tough to be in the sefarim business. The invasion of the internet has wreaked havoc for the sefarim, and secular book business and decimated stores all over. Today there is not one general-interest book store in the whole Bronx and Riverdale Judaica is the only sefarim store in the Bronx and Westchester. Yisroel points out that the few Judaica publishers left, such as Feldheim, find it cheaper to publish in Israel. The only major Jewish publisher still publishing in the U.S, is the Brooklyn-based Artscroll.
Music and jewelry/silver Judaica pieces have also taken a hit, but one area that is safe (at least for now) from internet infringement is religious articles. Due to myriad halachic and handling issues, no one will buy tefillin or mezuzot from Amazon.
There have been stories in the news about the recent uptick in small, independent bookstores in artsy neighborhoods providing that tactile experience you can’t get from Amazon. Many have become neighborhood centers and hangouts because there is simply no substitute for speaking to a live and knowledgeable book seller. Despite this ray of hope, Reb Yisroel has not seen this phenomenon extend to sefarim stores.
The holidays bring an uptick in business as people outfit themselves with the various necessities to fulfill the mitzvot for each chag. Riverdale Judaica also provides some local schools with their sefarim needs. At the end of the day, Riverdale Judaica has survived this long because of “individual attention. My personality is to be nice to everybody, to engage in conversation. People like that and come back.” No online outfit can substitute for the personal touch.
Yisroel is defiantly optimistic. He has been on the block for 30 years and he looks forward to 30 more. So the next time you are shopping in Riverdale, stop into Riverdale Judaica and show some ahavas “Yisroel.”
Riverdale Judaica (the store sign says “Riverdale Hebrew books”) is located at 3706 Riverdale Avenue in Riverdale. 718-601-7563. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11-7; Friday, 11-2; Sunday, 11-6; 1:45 p.m. Mincha minyan.
By Jeff Klapper