East (And West) Of Eden
Tue, 12/07/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
Liz Wallenstein: “I wasn’t in love 	with the West Side.”
Liz Wallenstein: “I wasn’t in love with the West Side.”

Call it The Great Singles Migration. OK, Almost Great.

Liz Wallenstein is one of the new émigrés. The 31-year-old psychotherapist lived in both Washington Heights and the Upper West Side before moving to Flatbush, a Brooklyn neighborhood known more for its kosher pizza options than for an active singles scene.

“I wasn’t in love with the West Side,” said Wallenstein. “I had been there for four years. I felt like I was there because I didn’t know where else to be.

“It was expensive to live there and I found myself looking for other places to go for Shabbos. So I decided it was time for a change.”

When a friend who grew up in Brooklyn suggested she check out Flatbush, Wallenstein was dubious. “I didn’t think that there would be any other single people there,” she said. Still, Wallenstein decided to give it a shot, spending a Shabbat there — and was pleasantly surprised.

“I was amazed to see so many single people living in Brooklyn,” she said.

Now, she pays less for her own one-bedroom in Flatbush than she did for a converted two-bedroom on the Upper West Side, which she shared with three other roommates.

Wallerstein is not alone in discovering that, yes, for singles there is life beyond the Upper West Side, which has long been considered the Holy Land for Jewish dating. You just have to look harder to find it. Sure, you can meet lots of single people on Central Park’s Great Lawn on a balmy summer’s day. You can find them in front of Congregation Ohab Zedek on Friday night, or in nearby lobbies of the Westmont and the Key West.

Look beyond the Upper West Side, though — look outside the entire borough of Manhattan — and you’ll find growing pockets of singles in some unlikely places.

Sick of paying exorbitant amounts of money for a minuscule amount of space, tired of the “meat market” atmosphere, they’ve abandoned the Upper West Side, carving out places for themselves in neighborhoods dominated by couples and families.

Ron Katz is another émigré. He spent six years on the Upper West Side before moving to Teaneck, a popular Bergen County destination for Modern Orthodox couples and families.

After growing up in the Detroit suburbs, Katz, a computer programmer in his early 40s, missed “grass, air, trees, quiet; the ability to have a car and park it near your house — just the convenience of suburban life.”

The move to Teaneck, he said, drew a mixed response from his friends on the West Side. “Some were jealous,” he said. “Some were like, ‘Oh yeah, I wish I could break away from the city.’ And other people probably thought I was crazy.”

Some singles choose to avoid living in Manhattan all together. Kim Strauss may spend the occasional Shabbat on the Upper West Side, but she doesn’t plan on moving there. Instead, she has chosen to live in Rego Park, Queens.

“The Upper West Side seems like a continuation of college to me,” said Strauss, 27, who attended New York University and now works at a Long Island market research company. “It’s young, single people living in artificial communities.”

Outside of Manhattan, though, singles find themselves outnumbered, as illustrated by an analysis of UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York (2002), the most recent year for which figures are available. In Brooklyn, 74 percent of respondents were married. In Nassau County, that number goes up to 79 percent, and in Westchester, to 82 percent.

“I think it’s fair to say that most of our singles [probably most suburban singles] are either divorced or widowed, which adds additional complexity to the process of meeting someone and integrating,” said Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester.

The Reform Temple, he said, offers singles havurot in Chappaqua, “to try to give people an additional anchor in the community.”

But without the social infrastructure that exists in places like the Upper West Side, singles in the outer boroughs and suburbs often must find new ways to create their own communities — or to fit themselves into the existing structure.

On Shabbat, Strauss attends the Young Couples’ Minyan at the Young Israel of Forest Hills, which she prefers to call the “Young Professionals Minyan.”

Others rely on the Internet to connect with other singles in their communities.

“Singles live in Teaneck?? More than you think!” reads the promotional description of the Teaneck Singles Yahoo group. “Just because we don’t live on the Upper West Side or Washington Heights, doesn’t mean we can’t coordinate melave malkas, onegs, or other functions.”

Members post invites to Shabbat meals, information on singles weekends, and other opportunities to meet up and hang out — sometimes at a wine-tasting or on a hike. It’s an important organizational tool for members of the Orthodox community, who can’t call each other up on Shabbat to make plans, or drive out of the neighborhood for any Shabbat activities.

With its quiet, tree-lined streets and suburban atmosphere, Teaneck provides fewer opportunities for singles to connect than the bustling Upper West Side.

On the West Side, Katz said, “You can meet people in shul; you can meet people in the lobby of your building, or walking down the street.” In Teaneck, he said, “You have to try a little harder to stay connected with your friends.”

Still, Katz said, he feels comfortable amidst a sea of married people and a relative handful of singles. “I don’t feel like an outcast,” he said.

Perhaps the most ambitious example of a self-starting singles community in an unlikely location is the Young Brooklyn Community at Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush. As Wallenstein discovered during her first Shabbat in Flatbush, many singles live in the neighborhood, but sheer numbers didn’t detract from a sense of isolation.

A sprawling neighborhood of long avenue blocks and small side streets dotted with synagogues, Flatbush contains a vast Jewish community that lacks any sense of unification. For singles, a sizable but largely invisible population, the neighborhood can be especially lonely.

“Unlike the West Side, there was no central shul that people went to and saw each other,” Wallenstein said. “There weren’t a lot of singles meals going on. People either just ate by themselves on Shabbos or went to families. There was really nothing connecting them to each other.”

Two years ago, a group of Flatbush singles decided to change that, and create a social center for themselves and their peers. With its dwindling Modern Orthodox membership, Talmud Torah on Coney Island Avenue seemed to be a good fit.

The synagogue’s leadership approved, and the Young Brooklyn Community was born. On its first Shabbat of its existence, it drew more than 150 people. Some of those people, Wallenstein said, had stopped attending synagogue because of the extreme alienation they felt. “Here was a shul where they felt like they could be part of the community, even though they were single,” she said.

Numbers have dropped considerably since that first opening weekend, as singles checked out the scene and moved on. However, the community’s Facebook page lists well over 600 members, some of whom don’t actually live in Flatbush but like to keep up with events in the neighborhood.

Shabbat meals for singles are more frequent now, but the scene still pales in comparison to the Upper West Side’s vibrant activity. “Part of it is logistics,” Wallenstein explained. “In Brooklyn, you’ll find people more in basement apartments; there might be people who are living with their families still. So those people don’t feel comfortable making meals in Brooklyn. Some of it comes down to the culture.”

Still, Wallenstein does her part, hosting Shabbat meals. And it was at one of those meals that Shmuel Engelson re-connected with an old acquaintance, Esther Noe.

After living in Brooklyn for more than a decade, Engelson, 38, had started renting a space on the Upper West Side. But the accountant found himself returning to Brooklyn, where he still paid rent on his old apartment.

His increasing involvement in YBC kept him coming back, as did Esther, who had lived on the West Side for two years before moving back to Brooklyn.

After dating for five months, the couple got engaged — a Flatbush success story. They’ve now been married for just over a year. “On the West Side, it’s like a meat market,” Shmuel said. “You’re kind of looking over everyone’s shoulder.”

“The numbers are greater on the West Side,” Esther added. “Here, it’s not quantity that matters.”

Wallenstein said she has dated members of the Brooklyn community, but also relies on dating websites and Manhattan events to meet people. She continues to remain involved in YBC, and also works with singles through her private psychotherapy practice, identifying obstacles that prevent them from maintaining relationships.

“I think that single people need to be able to have an adult life, and validating experiences,” Wallenstein said. “What I’ve seen through the community is people feel part of an extended family.”

Shmuel Engelson said he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Flatbush to singles.

“Live in Brooklyn for a couple of years,” he said. “There’s more community, there’s more focus. I think that can help push people forward.”