Jewish Life Returns to Bed-Stuy

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Kosher Ice Cream Shoppers
Jewish residents purchase kosher ice cream at Ice Cream House. (Stefan Doyno/TheBrooklynInk)

On a scorching Sunday afternoon in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with the air heavy with humidity, the crowd of customers built at the Ice Cream House. They were attracted by more than a cool dessert on a stifling day. Ice Cream House, located at 873 Bedford Avenue, is one of the newest kosher establishments to open up in the neighborhood.

Bedford-Stuyvesant, a haven of beautiful brownstones and architecturally impressive synagogues for thousands of working- and middle-class Jewish families in the mid-20th century, witnessed a severe decline in its Jewish population with the influx of West Indian and Caribbean immigrants in the 1960s and ‘70s. Now, as the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach in mid-September, Bedford-Stuyvesant is beginning to see a small, but constant resurgence of the Jewish community.

In her 2009 book, The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, Ellen Leavitt chronicled the houses of worship that were left behind when the Jewish population started moving out. Many of these synagogues became African-American churches, and today still have Jewish symbols, such as the mezuzah and the Magen David (Star of David). For example, St. Leonard’s Church, located at 765 Putnam Avenue between Malcolm X Boulevard and Patchen Avenue, is the former Shaari Zedek Synagogue, which was built by the architect Eugene Schoen in 1909-1910.

“When I was a kid, I used to go to ‘shul’ every morning” in the neighborhood, recalled Rabbi Yonah Landau, 64, a historian and writer who is now the chairman of the Committee to Visit Jewish Holy Sites in America. “There were good stores – fruits and vegetables – all over. Bakeries, matzoh bakeries. They all slowly went out of business. In 1957, ’58, ’59, the Jewish population started to get out.”

Landau explained that many Jews fled to the suburbs due to the property crime and racial tension. Bedford-Stuyvesant was also undermined by unscrupulous real-estate agents who exploited the racial transformation of the area to provoke panic-selling by white homeowners. Their efforts undermined not only Jews but the middle-class black community that had been part of Bed-Stuy since the 1920s.

Orthodox Jewish Men
Two orthodox Jewish men walk near Bedford Avenue. (Stefan Doyno/TheBrooklynInk)

Bedford-Stuyvesant is starting to see the slow, but steady return of a Jewish presence – part of an overall increase in the Jewish population throughout Brooklyn — and many residents and outsiders agree that there are two reasons why.

One factor is the influx of Orthodox Jews in Bedford-Stuyvesant due to the overpopulation in the surrounding areas, such as Williamsburg, Clinton Hill, and Crown Heights. “Procreativity,” explained Rabbi Ahrele Loschak, 27, of Crown Heights, who leads a Torah study group in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “Williamsburg, which is home to the Satmar Hasidic community, grows exponentially every year. It’s just busting out of the seams.”

Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, a former resident of the area, who runs the Chabad at the University of Illinois, happened to be visiting Bedford-Stuyvesant on that oppressively hot afternoon earlier this summer. As he loaded his children into his SUV, he noted  how many more Orthodox Jewish families he saw walking around on this trip. “Every time I visit, I’m amazed,” Tiechtel said. Tiechtel is not the only person to recognize change within the last four to five years. “I can tell you the Orthodox Jewish people are absolutely moving in,” said Helane Novell, a 10-year resident and homeowner. “We have several new kosher shops in the area.”

Chestnut, a newly opened kosher supermarket  on Myrtle Avenue, was filled with Orthodox families as well as younger and visibly less observant Jews, as well as African-American shoppers in the area. The large store seemed to accommodate a variety of residents, and did not seem to exclude those outside the Jewish community. Outside the store, a Hasidic man was engaged in an animated conversation with a Hispanic client and an African-American woman.

Shlomo Landau, 26, a travel consultant who is friendly with Joel Epstein, the manager at the recently opened supermarket, said that many newlyweds and young adults are desperate for housing because the Williamsburg area is “cramped.” “The rents in Bed-Stuy are typically 15 percent cheaper than in Williamsburg,” Landau explained.

Kosher Grocery Food Pyramid
Kosher grocery store Food Pyramid. (Stefan Doyno/TheBrooklynInk)

Nearby on Bedford Avenue, Food Pyramid, is another local kosher Market. Next door, a United Colors of Benetton clothing shop was filled with Hasidic women and their small children.

Natalie Guevara, a Barnard graduate who works for the Brandman Agency, a public relations firm in New York City, said she moved to Bedford-Stuvesant from Williamsburg in 2009. At first she felt uncomfortable walking around alone because her neighborhood was located near the Marcy Projects. Her living situation was based on what she could afford at the time.  Now Guevara lives on Macon Street in Stuyvesant Heights.

“I love my area, getting to know my neighbors — many of whom are long-time residents — and especially all the beautiful old brownstones and friendly local businesses that line my block,” Guevara explained. She has noticed a great evolution in the neighborhood from small businesses to new restaurants.

Another development she has noticed is the resurgence of the Jewish population, particularly Hasidic Jews in the areas around Jefferson and Putnam avenues and in the northwest section of the neighborhood near a station on the G subway line.

When Guevara shops for specific kosher products, especially at a kosher market on DeKalb Avenue, though, she sees fewer African-American residents shopping than she did in Williamsburg. “I think, in Bed-Stuy more than other New York neighborhoods, it’s extremely important to include local and longtime residents,” she said.  “Still, I’ve also talked with residents who feel that any new businesses by people who can afford to start them are good for the economic development and overall safety and convenience of the neighborhood.”

Amit Cohen, 38, an Israeli-born interior designer, who with her husband Ido-Paul resides in Williamsburg, owns property in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Cohen said that there are many great opportunities right now, and that Jewish investors are buying up brownstones, renovating them, and renting them out. Cohen believes that very soon the borders between Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill will be non-existent. “It’s just a matter of time,” Cohen said.

This is the second reason for the burgeoning Jewish presence in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Not only is the neighborhood gaining more Jewish owners of brownstones and new construction, but with the increase in a young, white population, a percentage of that Caucasian group, like anywhere else in the metropolitan area, is Jewish.

Rabbi Zali Abromowitz of the Fort Greene Chabad agreed. “This is a very exciting time,” Abromowitz said. “There will be a large percentage of Jewish — not necessarily affiliated, or traditional in any sense, maybe more secular and less involved, but at the same time people wouldn’t have the opposition to take part in a fun, Jewish event once in a while.”

“We’re not advocating, or saying that this is a good thing because of those people who were living here before are leaving,” he continued, “but rather living together with this cohesion of unity. People of different backgrounds, and different socioeconomic backgrounds coming together, living on the same block. That’s the beautiful part of this part of Brooklyn.”


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