In ‘Little Poland,’ gentrification and an inclusive Orthodox rabbi with a garden are reviving Jewish life.
Until recently, Yoni Kretzmer, a disillusioned former Orthodox Jew spent most Friday evenings performing on his sax, while Jesse Beller, who describes himself as unaffiliated, would spend Friday nights at a friend’s house or a bar.
But last Friday night, the two were at Congregation Ahavas Israel, the only Orthodox synagogue — indeed, the only Jewish congregation of any type — in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.
Kretzmer, who led the Kabbalat Shabbat service, chanting the liturgy like a veteran chazzan, and Beller are among a growing number of young Jews, most of whom identify as secular, who have moved to Greenpoint in the last decade and are active at Ahavas Israel.
Last week’s Friday-night service and a communal meal afterwards, served by Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum and his wife Rebeccah — in a shul on the verge of closing its doors a decade ago — were crowded with more than four dozen people. Some of them were dressed in scarves and coats, protection against a less than optimal heating system. Few were Orthodox.
Jewish life is emerging (actually, re-emerging) in this neighborhood, home to Jews (and once, five synagogues and a kosher butcher) since the 1800s. Known as “Little Poland” for the waves of emigrés from Poland who started settling there early in the 20th century, Greenpoint is in the northern-most part of Brooklyn, “1.2 square miles of grit and quaintness,” according to a recent New York Times story.
Bordered on the south by Williamsburg and on other sides by Newtown Creek (and Long Island City) and the East River, Greenpoint has been gentrifying over the last two decades, its low-but-rising rental and home prices, easy commute to Manhattan and reputation as the “next Williamsburg” attracting a growing number of young, tech-savvy residents (i.e., “hipsters”), many of them Jewish.
The streets offer a mixture of chain pharmacies and upscale bars, throwback places like the Polonia Restaurant and an insurance agency that advertises “Mowimy Po Polsku” (we speak Polish).
No official figures on the area’s Jewish population are available, but members of the community estimate that the neighborhood, which had experienced a Jewish exodus by the 1960s that left at most a few hundred Jews there, has grown to today to a few thousand.
The congregation is about to start a six-figure fundraising campaign to demolish the attached Greenpoint Hebrew Alliance, a now-condemned Reform temple that was jointly incorporated with Ahavas Israel in 1903. Plans call for the erection of a multi-story annex that will house a Hebrew school, daycare center and office. Ahavas Israel is working on a 100th anniversary dinner for sometime in May, and a community eruv is the works.
In the last decade there was little Jewish life in Greenpoint, outside of the sparsely attended Shabbat and holiday services at Ahavas Israel — better known as the Greenpoint Shul, the neighborhood’s only Jewish institution. That was until Naomi Wolfensohn, a “lapsed attorney” who lives in nearby Long Island City and has served as the congregation’s president for six years, mounted a fundraising campaign to finance repairs on the century-old building and pay for a rabbi. (The Greenpoint Shul had not had a spiritual leader since Jacob Zipper, a Polish-born cantor and Torah scholar who led the congregation for more than five decades, died in his late 90s in 2007.)
The congregation’s choice as its new spiritual leader in 2009 was Brooklyn native Rabbi Appelbaum, recently ordained by Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ “open Orthodoxy” rabbinical school.
The rabbi, now 30, set out to create a pluralistic Orthodox synagogue in the spirit of the early 20th-century “Jewish center” movement that offered multiple entry points into Jewish life. After posting a sign out front announcing that the building was not abandoned, he started a series of classes (Torah, Talmud, introductory Hebrew, and conversion instruction in conjunction with the Rabbinical Council of America), fostered the establishment of a garden in its backyard that grows crops for the Greenpoint Reformed Church’s food pantry, started a learner’s Shabbat service, instituted a monthly Friday night speakers series, joined a monthly clothing swap in Town Square, and provided space for meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous.
He asked women who came to worship services to design a mechitza that meets both halachic and feminist standards. The result is an unobtrusive, waist-high divider of metal pipes and pieces of linen that runs the length of the sanctuary.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable”sitting on the women’s side of the mechitza, says Jenifer Rosenberg, a 39-year-old resident of Greenpoint and leader of the shul’s garden committee.
Rabbi Appelbaum tells of another woman who called him shortly after he came to Ahavas Israel. “She had a major theological issue with the mechitza,” but came to services occasionally and helped tend to the garden.
Which is OK with the rabbi. “There’s more to [being part of] the community than just davening.”
“We want Jews to come as they are,” he says. “I don’t feel it’s my obligation to make everyone ‘religious,’” though his goal is to “expose them and empower them on their Jewish journey.”
The congregation is not affiliated with any Orthodox organization, and its website (greenpointshul.org) does not mention its denomination.
Rabbi Appelbaum, says Harold “Brett” Bretstein, a longtime member of the congregation and former president, “has created a real comfort level.”
Regular participants in Ahavas Israel activities include secular Jews, gays, unmarried couples living together and members with non-Jewish significant others.
“Perhaps the two most core values that we teach at YCT is a welcoming and inclusive attitude towards all people, and a sense of responsibility towards larger Klal Yisrael and the world,” says Rabbi Dov Linzer, Chovovei Torah dean. “People of diverse backgrounds and practice are welcomed and feel welcome in the shul.”
One sign of the congregation’s eclectic nature: the worshipers last Saturday morning included, on separate sides of the mechitza, a woman praying with a tallit atop her head, and a middle-aged Williamsburg chasid in a long black coat.
Rabbi Appelbaum says he sometimes hears criticism from the left and the right. “Some people are disappointed that we can’t be more egalitarian” — that is, lose the mechitza, he says. Others ask why he doesn’t push members to be “more frum.”
Greenpoint’s Jewish population, and attendance at synagogue events, is steadily growing, Wolfensohn says. “I feel we’re at a bit of a tipping point,” she says. Will the growth in the area’s Jewish numbers, certain to continue because of an eight-year-old rezoning that approved more residential housing, and a soon-to-open $80 million rental building on Manhattan Avenue, be enough to support the shul’s optimistic plans?
Howard Metzger, a third-generation member of the shul who lives in Baldwin, L.I., thinks the answer is yes.
“The influx of young Jews, unaffiliated, and open-minded about the practices of Judaism, makes the future of the congregation bright,” he says.
And the short-term future also looks bright, members of Ahavas Israel say.
This Friday night, Yoni Kretzmer plans to be on the bima again, and Jesse Beller plans to be in the pews.
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