From Relic To Renaissance
Wed, 01/02/2008
Associate Editor
As the Lower East Side continues its evolution from relic to renaissance, “Simply Tsfat” was the music on Clinton Street a few weeks ago, three young Breslovers playing two guitars and a fiddle in the social hall of the Chasam Sofer shul, a relic of the 1800s restored to a 21st-century sheen for a 20s and 30s demographic. Beyond the music, though, Clinton Street saw something it probably had never seen in Chasam Sofer’s heyday, almost a century ago. When the music ended, the crowd — and the shul was crowded — headed across Clinton Street to the Cocoa Bar, a chic establishment whose kitchen was kashered for the night. Perhaps Chasam Sofer celebrating in the Cocoa Bar wasn’t quite Mohammed coming to the mountain that wouldn’t come to him, but this wasn’t the first time Chasam Sofer figuratively crossed the street. Not long ago, the shul’s Rabbi Azriel Siff kashered the kitchen at the old Punch & Judy’s on Clinton Street for a Friday night Shabbat dinner. “If they’re not going to come to us,” says Rabbi Siff of the neighborhood’s elusive and uncommitted Jewish population, “we’re going to go to them.” There’s a palpable energy on the Lower East Side, as several Orthodox shuls — the Bialystoker, Chasam Sofer and Stanton Street, to name but three — each dating back to the neighborhood’s mythical glory days, are hustling to attract the burgeoning Jewish population that often arrives upscale but less than observant, a complete switch from the old immigrant dynamic of observant but poor. The Orthodox influx has been limited for one simple reason. One of the neighborhood’s century-old Orthodox institutions, the haredi-tilting Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem — a yeshiva serving students “from 5 to 90,” according to one official — has been successful in thwarting all attempts at creating an eruv, the boundary-creating halachic device that would allow, among other things, parents to push strollers and carriages in the street on Shabbat. The more liberal shuls in the area have young rabbis, none with the gravitas or seniority of MTJ’s Rav Dovid Feinstein. So the Manhattan eruv does not extend below Houston Street. Many Modern Orthodox couples with babies won’t look for apartments below Houston Street either. Not all young Orthodox Jews need an eruv. Cheryl Nayowitz, 26, a young mother who lives on East Broadway near Seward Park, said, “I didn’t necessarily mind” not having an eruv. “I was able to take my baby outside because my building had a gated park,” that didn’t require an eruv. “My son now walks so we can go places on Shabbos, but I can see how it’s hard when you have a newborn.” Nayowitz, who works at Migdahl Ohr, first discovered the Lower East Side when she attended New York University. She and her husband have been living in the community for four years now. “My husband works on Water Street, so he has a 20-minute walk to work. We liked the idea of being in the city. We’d like to move to Israel, that’s our long-term goal. But for now, the Lower East Side is really very nice.” Diane Reich, who has lived on the Lower East Side for decades and doesn’t plan to leave, recently retired from the Board of Education and, with two grown children, decided to devote herself to promoting the neighborhood she loves. She says, “I daven at Bialystok,” on Willet Street, “but I’m a member of several synagogues in the community. My heart is with all of them.” A few weeks ago, she invited a few friends to a meeting to “brainstorm” about how best to bring in Jewish families. “We just got together and talked. So many people are interested. At our first meeting, 30 people showed up, some I didn’t even know, and I’m a lifelong Lower East Sider.” Reich says, “We’ll take people around,” show them the neighborhood, “the centers, the culture in the community.” She wants to convince people that the neighborhood is great for children. “Three synagogues now have Shabbos morning services geared to children. I go to the park on Shabbos with my grandchildren. If you go to the park between the co-ops, it is vast and green. ” Her ad hoc group is planning to set up a Web site and e-mail address for prospective neighbors. In the interim, Reich’s volunteers can be reached through the Lower East Side Conservancy (212-374-4100), an advocacy and historical preservation group that is serving Reich in an advisory capacity. The Conservancy also offers tours and advice of their own on the Web, at nycjewishtours.org. The Web is home to several Lower East Side Jewish advocates. One colorful blog, LoHo10002 (that number being the Lower East Side ZIP code), says it is “produced by a bunch of smart, opinionated, dishy, nosy, funny New Yorkers who love to run around Lower Manhattan eating, going to movies and plays, listening to music, taking pictures, and sharing all the dish.” They also happen to be Orthodox, primarily Jacob “Yankie” Goldman, former president of the Bialystoker who is proprietor of LoHo Realty, an upscale real estate operation on Grand Street that earned notice in New York magazine; and Yuri Yanover, a veteran journalist with a serrated wit who publishes and edits the Grand Street News, perhaps the best and most irreverent source of local Jewish news. Yanover says he circulates 12,000 copies each month, and the magazine also has an excellent   Web site, grandstreetnews.com. “We’re a local phenomenon,” says Yanover. “Definitely the most popular site in the zip code.” Yanover, a member at the Stanton Street Synagogue, is bullish on the younger, more dynamic shuls in the neighborhood. “I have high hopes for the shuls that have a better awareness of marketing and community, such as Stanton and the Bialystoker, and the Chabad,” referring to the Chabad of the Lower East Side on Grand Street. The Chabad is led by Rabbi Yisroel Stone, until recently the leader of the minyan that occupied a modest space within the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which had a grand opening on Dec. 2 that marked the completion of a 20-year renovation project. Because the Eldridge Street Project is officially nonsectarian and the beneficiary of public funds, its century-old minyan has become increasingly skeletal, unable to ride the high tide of the museum’s success. There are services Shabbat mornings, but often not even on Friday nights let alone weekdays. Nevertheless, says one local Orthodox leader, “the Eldridge Street Project gives us an amazing cultural perspective, which is another aspect to Judaism.” Other institutions in the neighborhood are doing well. “The Chasam Sofer has all the money they need,” said Yanover, “and when they throw a show, they have nice attendance.” Yanover says that his shul, Stanton Street — a shul that many left for dead a few years ago after its former rabbi sold the synagogue before activists recaptured the shul for its congregants — now has undertaken a synagogue-wide renovation, along with a Carlebach-style spiritual renovation. The shul now has about 200-300 adults and children, says Yanover. “Our Shabbos attendance is rarely less than 40 men and women. It is a completely organic shul — old, young, married, singles, bar mitzvahs; this is one shul that no longer has to be resuscitated.” Along with Stanton’s renovation, the Young Israel of Manhattan, the very first shul in the Young Israel movement back in 1912, sold its old building to developers. They are moving into temporary quarters and will return to a renovated four-story space underneath 10 stories of luxury condos. Yanover praised the Bialystoker for “always looking to partner with local institutions,” such as the Educational Alliance on 14th Street. “They’re going to not only survive but thrive, with the new population because when you have kids that are young, when you forge a relationship with a new shul, they’re an affordable, friendly, clean, pleasant place.” It is generally agreed that the Bialystoker sanctuary has one of the most spectacular interiors of any synagogue in the city. LoHo Realty’s Goldman pointed to the success of Bialystoker’s outreach efforts, as evidenced by 80 unaffiliated Jews turning up at Bialystok’s Beginner’s Service, led by congregant State Supreme Court Justice Martin Shulman. State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver is another prominent member at the Bialystoker, a regular at its Hashkama Minyan. Realtor Goldman says the Lower East Side has become “a hot market. There’ll be a tremendous amount of building going on. Right now there’s a luxury rental, the Ludlow, right next to Katz’s Deli. I can see the Lower East Side becoming the next Soho. Is it good for the Jews? I think when you have a thriving, economically sound dynamic it makes a healthy neighborhood for all of us.”