Washington Heights Jews Caught In A Growth Bind

As the affordable neighborhood increasingly attracts young families,
can it be more than a stepping stone to the suburbs?

08/11/10
Special To The Jewish Week
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Young couples and families are flooding into Washington Heights, drawn by affordable rents, convenient commutes and a vibrant Jewish community. And they are changing the look and feel of what used to be referred to as Frankfurt on the Hudson for its concentration of German Jews.

The question on people’s lips these days is, will those young families stay in the Heights, putting down roots there, or will they move on?

Take Steven Schwartzberg, for example. The former Upper West Sider is an active community builder, currently serving as secretary of Mount Sinai Jewish Center, one of the neighborhood’s Orthodox synagogues.

The Cincinnati native enjoys living in his affordable two-bedroom with his wife and 6-month-old daughter — but he doesn’t plan on staying for too long.

“In five years, chances are we would like to be in a suburb somewhere,” said Schwartzberg, 31, a marketing consultant.

Then there’s Jordan Kolar, 35. Another former Upper West Sider, Kolar is also an active member of his synagogue, the egalitarian Fort Tryon Jewish Center.

Kolar doesn’t see his Washington Heights apartment as a steppingstone to the suburbs. Instead, he plans on staying long-term with his wife and 10-month-old son — praying at FTJC, playing with his child in Fort Tryon Park and reveling in the freedom of not needing a car.

“My feeling, very much, is that we’ve found our home,” said Kolar, an attorney. “I felt that way almost immediately when we moved. Washington Heights was the neighborhood we picked because we wanted a place to settle down.”

While Kolar said most of his friends plan on staying in the neighborhood, Anat Coleman tells a very different story.

“Every summer, there’s an outflux of friends,” said Coleman, 31, the community affairs coordinator for the JCC of Washington Heights and Inwood, and a Mount Sinai Jewish Center member.

Washington Heights has an active Shabbat scene, with communal meals being the norm. At these meals, Coleman said, people often talk about where they plan on moving after their years in the neighborhood.

“That’s really hard,” she said — not only on a personal level, but also “as someone who believes in the strength of building community.”

For her part, Coleman plans on staying. Married with a 3-year-old son, the native Londoner has no immediate plans to find a home across the George Washington Bridge: “I don’t have that suburban dream; I never did.”

Many of her Orthodox neighbors on Bennett Avenue are already planning their suburban futures. As their families rapidly expand, one- or two-bedroom apartments — even affordable ones within blocks of several synagogues, and right near a supermarket with a huge selection of kosher food — just don’t provide enough space.

David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, called this dilemma the “second-kid barrier.”

“What happens if they have more than one child, and they want each child to have their own bedroom?” Pollock said. “To find a three-bedroom apartment is extraordinarily expensive.”

Of course, that problem extends to all Manhattan neighborhoods, and what Pollock called the “Manhattan wannabes” — Brownstone Brooklyn, for instance.

However, the Upper East and Upper West Sides tend to attract a higher-income population, while in Washington Heights, everything is about affordability.

Even members of the Heights’ longstanding German-Jewish community, which is congregated around K’hal Adath Jeshurun, known as “Breuer’s,” are leaving the old neighborhood and moving to Monsey, Pollock said: “They can get more home for less money.”

Pollock emphasized that all of this demographic information is anecdotal and not based on data from UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York from 2002.

“The neighborhood’s too small to have a sufficient number of cases to be statistically reliable,” he said. The next geographic profile is set to come out in 2012.

In the meantime, one can just look around the neighborhood to see signs of growth and change. Fort Tryon Jewish Center is betting on its future, undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation.

The synagogue’s membership is changing, said FTJC’s executive director, Jack Greene, over coffee at Gideon’s, an old-fashioned kosher bakery on 187th Street where one can still get a buttered bagel for a dollar.

“It’s gotten much younger,” he said. “It’s gotten more diverse.” And, at 150 members, it’s increased from previous years.

Looking dapper in a suit and tie, Greene, stands out from the elderly denizens at Gideon’s, whom he greets with familiarity. At 63, he’s lived in the Heights for almost 40 years.

“We have the people who remained, and the people who in the last decade moved into the community,” he said. “We get the young and old.”

The young often flock to Mount Sinai Jewish Center, a neighborhood heavyweight with 400 members. Friday nights on normally quiet Bennett Avenue are alive with the chatter of 20- and 30-somethings, as they spill out onto the street after services. As they catch up on a week’s worth of socializing, it’s a boisterous scene that rivals the famously lively Congregation Ohab Zedek, about 90 blocks downtown.

Unlike many synagogues, Mount Sinai’s lay leadership mostly consists of people in their 20s and 30s. Board members now serve one-year terms — a concession, perhaps, to the community’s transitional nature.

At 67, Freda Birnbaum is one of the older board members. While some longtime members have bemoaned the youth takeover, Birnbaum said there have been new efforts to reach out to the synagogue’s seniors.

“You would hear some vocal complaints for a while — older people feeling kind of left out,” she said. “[But] I think the current leadership is making a serious effort.”

Although the suburbs have eroded its population, Breuer’s remains a community stalwart, where one can still hear a choir sing on Shabbos and witness German-Jewish customs, such as a young boy bringing his “wimpel” to shul — a cloth used to swaddle him at his brit milah (circumcision), which is later used to bind a Torah scroll. K’hal Adath Jeshurun also runs several community institutions, including the mikveh and yeshiva day and high schools.

Yeshiva University, as well, is a mainstay of the community, with many people moving there because they attend (or graduated from) the school or are married to YU students, some of whom are pursuing rabbinical degrees, others studying at the various graduate schools. But the Heights proves to be a dilemma for Modern Orthodox young families once their kids reach school age since there is no Modern Orthodox school in the immediate area (Breuer’s is considered more right wing).

Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, the Heights’ Reform synagogue, dates back to 1906 and has been located in the neighborhood since 1973. Fort Tryon Jewish Center is holding services there while its building undergoes renovation, an example of the local Jewish community’s tight-knit nature.

An unlikely social mecca is Key Food on Broadway, which features a sizable collection of kosher products under KAJ certification. On Thursday nights and Fridays, the store is crowded with people selecting their chicken from the poultry section, visiting the in-house kosher deli counter and chatting in the produce aisle.

Never a take-out bastion, save for the joints on Amsterdam Avenue catering to Yeshiva University students — Golan Heights being one popular meat option — Washington Heights now features its own kosher Chinese restaurant, three-month-old Chop Chop on West 184th Street.

Owner Shaul Rutta said he’s doing “incredible” business, averaging 175 orders daily over the summer, and he expects at least 300 a day in winter.

While some of that business comes from the local student population, Rutta said orders are coming in from families on Bennett Avenue, taking advantage of Chop Chop’s free delivery service.

It remains to be seen whether those families will stay long-term, nourishing Rutta’s business and helping its enduring survival. Anat Coleman hopes they’ll stick around, so that she can stay in the Heights, too.

“The defining factor in leaving would be if all of our friends had disappeared,” she said.

But she puts her finger squarely on the dilemma facing the Washington Heights community.

“The seniors are only going to get older, and the young people will get younger — unless we can figure out a way to make the neighborhood enticing enough that people in their 30s are going to stay,” she said.

“If over the next five years, I see that everyone has moved out, I would have to think hard about staying,” Coleman said, “which would be a real shame.”

 

 

Last Update:

02/03/2011 - 13:57

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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS is the hidden jewel of MANNHATTAN not populated by those with extremely high income. The heights has seen many changes as well as inwood inluding my family who migrated from the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, as a third generation of dominican decent the existence of YESHIVA and the finalization of MT. Sinah the jewish community is here to stay even with it's fluctuation of students and aging residents and the absence of beloved freind. views and opinion of non jew resident of what all LOVE & CALL DA HEIGHTS
It is amusingly ironic that Susanne refers to the "Breuer's side eruv", as the Breuer community (officially congregation Kahal Adas Jeshurun) has traditionally opposed eruvin. (In the last few years the terms "Breuer's side" and "YU side" (Yeshiva University) have come to refer to the parts of the neighborhood west and east of Braodway.) They were not happy when the "Hudson Heights" eruv went up, but the level of civility has been remarkably superior to that in many places where eruvin have been opposed. With the recent extension of the "Hudson Heights" eruv to the border of the YU eruv, mobility has improved even more. As an "old-timer" I miss folks like Susanne when they move away, but I am pleased to see the energy and participation of the younger crowd. I guess it's something like being a professor in a college town!
Great post pointing out some of the shortfalls of Washington Heights. I lived there for 8 years and watched Mount Sinai become an Orthodox singles power house. I also watched as many couples married and wanted to start families so they moved away. The building of the Breuer's side eruv helped a lot, giving parents the ability to get out of the house on Shabbos, bring their children to shul and build a wonderful Tot Shabbat program. But space remains an issue. Last week, I moved out of my one bedroom Washington Heights apartment and moved into a large 4 bedroom two story home in the Dallas suburbs (which by the way, costs about the same. Subliminal Message: Move Here!). That's hard to pass up when you are young and interested in starting a family, something that definitely was not possible in my cramped Heights apartment. I loved the Heights. I loved the friends I made in those cramped aisles of Key Food. I loved watching the rise of Mount Sinai (although I was sad to see other shuls struggle with Mount Sinai's growth). But you know what, like college, sometimes, its time to move on.
Calm down regarding the Chabad people. I'm a big fan too but Chabad of Washington Heights barely makes a minyan some weeks. I have no issue with the Jewish Week focusing on the shul where you can't get a seat if you don't arrive on time. In fact, Mt Sinai is where Chabad goes to find men for their minyan when they are short.
I thought the article was quite balanced, though I do look forward to more coverage at another time. Chabad actually hasn't been here all that long. I think the major thing driving the influx into the neighborhood is the escalating rents on the upper west sdie. I do think the eruv we've had for the last few years will help keep people here a few years beyond what they might have stayed if we didn't have one. Even though I wasn't crazy about the picture of me that made it into the hardopy edition, it flushed out a high-school friend I'd lost touch with: her husband recognized my name, and she dug up my phone number. A lot to be said for keeping the same phone number even if your address changes! Freda Birnbaum
Not commenting on the article, but on the two commenters angry at the chabad not being mentioned: Many larger, more active shuls and institutions weren't mentioned either. So what? This wasn't an article about important Jewish organizations in WH. It was about people moving out because they can't find an affordable apartment that is suitable for their growing family. Does chabad of WH offer subsidized housing? Is it planning any new construction or development of existing housing stock? ok....so, what was your question? Also not mentioned: fox news (conspiracy!!), you, rain in Spain, price of tea in China, etc.
also, there's a chabad house in washington heights. kind of a large oversight on the research, there.
To write about Jewish life in Wash Hts without mentioning Chabad of Washington Hts reveals a serious flaw in your journalistic abilities. I think Fox News would call it lack of "fair and balanced" reporting.

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