Rising To New Heights

Washington Heights and Inwood experience a Jewish revival — and this time, young families are putting down roots.

09/25/13
Staff Writer
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A professor of geography, Enid Lotstein became interested in some new territory last year — in Manhattan.

After renting in Harlem for seven years, Lotstein, who lives with her teenage daughter, decided it was time to buy. They investigated a few neighborhoods: familiar Harlem, Hudson Heights in the western section of Washington Heights and Inwood, the northernmost part of the borough, just above Washington Heights.

In a few weeks they’ll move into their new, two-bedroom apartment in Inwood.

“It was an economic decision,” says Lotstein. In Inwood, she says, you can buy an apartment for about the same as it costs to rent in trendier areas like the Upper West Side. And it was a commuting decision: she needs to be near her college campus in the West Bronx and her daughter near her high school in Manhattan. “It was important to stay in Manhattan.”

The Lotsteins aren’t alone.

In recent years a growing number of Jews have moved to Inwood and to nearby Washington Heights, fueling a Jewish revival that began about a decade ago, and has accelerated over the last few years. Like Lotstein, many of the newcomers to the two neighborhoods came primarily for economic reasons, but often became active in extant or newly formed Jewish organizations. Like Lotstein, many came from areas further south in Manhattan, where they were priced out. Like Lotstein, they are turning Inwood and Washington Heights into one of the hottest Jewish housing markets of the decade.

“It has become a destination for young people,” particularly singles, hoping to meet spouses, says Rabbi Mordecai Schnaidman, emeritus spiritual leader of the Mount Sinai Jewish Center.

Two recent signs of this Jewish renaissance are the formation of Inwood Jews (inwoodjews.com), an unaffiliated educational outreach organization founded by a Chabad-oriented and Yeshiva University-ordained activist, and the appointment of a new, outreach-focused rabbi at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center.

And UJA-Federation of New York recently announced that it will make grants available later this year to programs in the two neighborhoods that are geared to families with young children. “We look at this as an area that has potential for growth,” says Hana Gruenberg, planning director for UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.

Residents and Jewish leaders there tell of burgeoning demand for playgroups, nursery school programs, day care and after-school programs. They tell of parks crowded with young Jewish families on Shabbat afternoons, of Jewish residents moving into apartments on the far west side of Broadway. The YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood recently hired an additional full-time youth worker.

Washington Heights and Inwood, two separate neighborhoods that many people consider a single unit, are largely working-class, middle-class areas of apartment buildings and some private homes, largely Dominican, with residents from other ethnic backgrounds settling there in recent years. The Heights has two Jewish areas: on the east, the blocks surrounding the Centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University, and on the west, where the Y stands. The two areas (the bulk of the shuls are on the east side) are separated by what residents call “The Valley,” the low-lying section dominated by Broadway’s strip of bodegas and ethnic restaurants.

Both sides have experienced a Jewish revival.

Zalman Alpert, a reference librarian at YU who has lived in Washington Heights since 1988, says a younger cadre of Jewish residents has replaced the older ones who died or moved away from both sides of the valley.

Residents and Jewish leaders there share stories of the two neighborhoods’ reputation spreading as far as Israel, a reputation that statistics bear out.

According to UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, which was released last year, the Washington Heights-Inwood area experienced “an exponential increase in both the number of Jewish households as well as the number of people in Jewish households” since the philanthropy’s previous study in 2002.

“Washington Heights/Inwood has experienced the fourth-largest absolute population increase (12,600) and the largest proportional increase in its Jewish population — growing 144% since 2002,” the recent study stated. The UJA-Federation study estimated the neighborhoods’ Jewish population at 23,700, up from 9,700 in 2002.

“It’s already an old number,” says Martin Englisher, longtime executive vice president of the Y. He says the current figure now approaches 26,000. “Every day I get calls about people moving in.” Among the newcomers are some Israeli and Soviet emigrés, and a growing number of people in the LGBT community.

Inwood’s Jewish population, possibly as high as 10,000 a half-century ago, declined to about 1,000 about 20 years ago, and is back up to 2,000, maybe higher, observers there say.

For a long time, Washington Heights had the reputation as a place where young couples moved when the first got married, but left when they started raising families. Today, says Anat Coleman, director of community affairs at the Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood, “more people are staying than ever before.”

Both Washington Heights, home for decades to both YU and thousands of German refugees from the Third Reich, and Inwood, which attracted Jews of various affiliations, went through a wave of large-scale Jewish flight starting in the 1960s; many synagogues and Jewish businesses closed down.

The current revival began, residents say, because the results of mayoral crime-reduction policies became evident (street crimes, according to NYPD statistics decreased by 80 or 90 percent), and because an eruv went up in 2006 on the east side, bringing in young families attracted by the possibility of wheeling their children to shul in strollers on Shabbat.

Today, many of the new residents of Washington Heights and Inwood are young single or young families, many of them religiously observant. “The proportion of people ages 18 to 39 in Washington Heights/Inwood (40%) is substantially higher than in Manhattan overall (20%),” the recent UJA-Federation demographic study stated.

Unlike many local neighborhoods and communities that have engaged in concerted efforts to attract Jewish residents, often offering financial incentives and stressing their Jewish resources, there is no similar Washington Heights-Inwood campaign. It’s all word of mouth — and of course, the Internet and social media. Congregations there did not proactively offer programs of interest to the young cohort, but older synagogue leaders quickly adapted, several observers say.

“Community is not only about existing and strong organizations” — it’s about new ones, and old ones that react to demographic changes, says UJA-Federation’s Gruenberg.

The Jewish revival’s most noticeable effect is at the Y, where new family-oriented programs have begun, and at the Mount Sinai Jewish Center and the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, where membership is growing.

A caveat: smaller congregations have not benefited from the revival, and there’s still no kosher butcher, Judaica store -- and a single kosher bakery, Gideon's -- in the area.

While supermarkets offer a full range of kosher items, and liquor stores offer a modest selection of kosher wines, the neighborhoods’ only kosher restaurants are across The Valley on the YU side. That has not been a deterrent, says David Libchaber, a native of France who has lived in Washington Heights 11 years.

“Aside from eating out, you can definitely lead a Jewish life,” says Libchaber, who was leader of a group of parents who began leading children’s services at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center seven years ago and now serves as the congregation’s president.

Rabbi Guy Austrian, who was recently ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and in January became spiritual leader of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, an unaffiliated “traditional halachic egalitarian shul,” meets congregants for counseling or informal education in such venues as nearby parks and cafes, conducts a “Sunday Shmooze” in his apartment.

Upcoming member-driven plans at the synagogue, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, include an adult education series on Jewish prayer, and a social justice program.

At the Mount Sinai Jewish Center, which is Modern Orthodox, veteran leaders of the congregation have appointed new members to positions of synagogue leadership, Rabbi Schnaidman says. “They are in control of the shul and its destiny.”

When the young members began showing up in large numbers for Shabbat services and conducting their own minyan in a smaller room, Rabbi Schnaidman says, the veteran members moved the new minyan to the main sanctuary. Now, he says, the newcomers “are the minyan.”

And Enid Lotstein, who will be an Inwood resident soon, says she plans to participate in many activities of the new Inwood Jews group.

Lotstein, who keeps a kosher home and calls her Jewish orientation “Renewal … Conservative,” calls the availability of Jewish life there “a fringe benefit.”

Financial considerations brought her and her daughter to northern Manhattan, she stresses, but the opportunity to keep active in Jewish life is “a nice benefit.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

10/15/2013 - 08:13

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Agreed that the author had all kinds of trouble understanding East and West, or for that matter North and South. (Inwood supposedly ends at Dyckman St, but this is very much in dispute and many believe the streets around the Y to also be in Inwood. It used to be just the Washington Heights Y, the "Inwood" was added later. But then again the Jewish Memorial Hospital was right next to it and that was normally thought of as an Inwood institution. Go figure.)

In any case, in the past I believe the Jewish community was, from Fairview Ave going north, largely East of Broadway. There are still former synagogues on streets like Vermilyea if you look closely enough. West of Broadway was historically Irish. But as immigrants came and left the east side became largely Dominican and the west side became the place to move to if you were priced out of the Upper West Side. I could be wrong but I believe that nearly all of the current growth is happening west of Broadway (which is also where most of the coops and all of the private houses are found).

All in all a very interesting topic.

Gideons is a bakery outlet for a Lakewood NJ bakery. Though the products are fresh and yummy, you wont smell fresh bread baking there.

The KAJ-Breuer's community has been the mainstay of the Jewish community west of Broadway for the past 70 years. This congregation, with its renowned yeshiva/day school system from N-high school, plus a new, bustling post-high school yeshiva program, are to be credited for keeping the Jewish community of Washington Heights alive and thriving through the roughest and the best of times. (KAJ did this all without an eruv, as it follows the majority of American poskim, who have ruled that Manhattan streets cannot be serviced by an eruv.)

Another two statements to be corrected are about "residents from other ethnic backgrounds settling there in recent years" and "Among the newcomers are some Israeli and Soviet emigrés". A large community of immigrants from former Soviet Union, both Jewish and not, has been there since late 1980s; it was simply not much on any one's radar screen. It now has a few grassroots community organizations of its own, one of them interfaith, Russian-Speaking Community Council of Manhattan and the Bronx. The Greeks and the Armenians have also lived there.

I live on Bennett and have never heard it referred to as "the Valley." Also, I might argue that since a large number of people living in "the Valley"--the entire Breuers Community and most of the people that go to Mt. Sinai--have never heard or been to the Y, it should not be considered the only center of the Jewish community.

Some more factual errors in this article:
~ The author mixed up "east" and "west". He says there are more shuls on the "east" side. That is not true. There are 2 synagogues on Bennett Avenue - Mount Sinai and Breuers, two on Fort Washington Avenue - Fort Tryon Jewish Center and Hebrew Tabernacle, and two on 179th and Pinehurst - Washington Heights Congregation and Shaare Hatikvah, for a total of six. Those are the ones I know of. There might be more.
~ The author also mentions the eruv that went up in 2006 on the "east" side. That is also not true. The eruv mostly encircles the west side, from Wadsworth Avenue, west until the west side highway.
~ While there is no regular Judaica store, YU runs a Judaica book sale every year in the month right before Purim.
~ A few people already mentioned Gideon's bakery on 187th Street and Fort Washington Avenue.
~ No one calls it "The Valley"

Interesting article, though, unfortunately, it includes several factual errors. For example, the article seems to imply that there is little Jewish life in "the valley," which is the opposite of the truth. Most of the Jews in Washington Heights live in the valley, along Bennett Ave and Overlook Terr. Mt. Sinai Jewish Center, which is mentioned in the article, is in "the valley," as is Breuer's synagogues and schools, which is another large community in the neighborhood which was not mentioned at all, and also seems to be growing at this time. In another untruth, the article states that most of the synagogues in the neighborhood are on the east side of Broadway. What is true is that most of the kosher food establishments are in the east side of Broadway, which is not mentioned. It seems to me that these errors demonstrate the journalist's incomplete understanding of the subject matter about which he is writing. Another example of sloppy journalism in this article is the paragraph that states, "There’s still no kosher butcher, Judaica store or kosher bakery in the area," which was printed right next to a photo of people shopping in Gideon's kosher bakery. This reminds me to take with a grain of salt the things I read in The Jewish Week. I hope to see a higher quality of journalism from the publication in the future.

I don't know that I agree with the statement "on the east, the blocks surrounding the Centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University, and on the west, where the Y stands."
The community is not geographically centered around the Y nor is the the Y in the east--it is actually north of the Washington Hts community. The east side of Washington Heights has been referred to as "the Breuer's Community" for many decades. "Breuer's" is a reference to K'Hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) which was founded in Washing Hts by Rabbi Joseph Breuer in the late 1930s. While it has suffered from the demographic decline discussed later in the article, its presence certainly helped stabilize the Jewish presence in the area for many years.
Additionally, the statement that there is no kosher bakery in the area is incorrect: check out Gideon's Bakery at 810 W 187 St.

There is a kosher bakery in Washington Heights. Gideon's Bakery, 810 W. 187th Street.

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