Michael Bolla, a high-powered real estate broker who lives on the Upper East Side and works on the Lower East Side, was headed to a lunch date along Essex Street last week when a sad sight caught his eye.
Outside Israel Judaica, at a few small tables crammed with old menorahs and candlesticks, the store’s manager, a 50ish woman, stood at the ready to sell her wares to the rare interested passerby, and buried her head in her hands.
Bolla asked what was wrong.
“I have no customers,” answered the manager, Esther, a native of Iran who has worked at Israel Judaica 15 years. “I’m going out of business.” She explained that sales had dropped dramatically recently, the store’s owner could not meet the month’s rent payment, and the store — believed to be the last full-service Judaica shop in the area — would close at the end of the week.
Bolla, running late, said he would come back after lunch.
He returned, listened to Esther’s lament at greater length, and promised to help.
An Orthodox Jew with deep connections in the city’s real estate community, he arranged financing (including some of his own funds) that gave the store another month of life. And he started to outline a plan that would convert Israel Judaica, which carries a limited stock of decades-old kipot and posters and similar assorted items, into what he calls “the Judaica store of the future,” a savvy enterprise with a high-visibility Internet presence and work-study students from nearby New York University.
Bolla’s snap decision to help keep the store in business was the latest step in his one-man campaign to boost the Jewish community of the storied neighborhood that a century ago was home to the country’s most-concentrated Jewish population. “It’s the last Judaica store” in the neighborhood, he said of Israel Judaica. “It’s a big deal.”
In a move he calls strictly business, he is developing the Madison-Jackson building, the site of century-old, long-empty Public School 12 on Madison Street into an condo apartment building that will be open for sale on a non-sectarian basis but offer such Orthodox-friendly amenities as a 24-hour kosher restaurant and an indoor pool with separate hours for men and women. And he is coordinating a Shabbaton the weekend of June 8-10 that will be geared to prospective Jewish residents of the Lower East Side.
“He’s getting a lot of buzz and excitement,” says Jacob Yankie Goldman, who lives on the Lower East Side and works as a real estate broker. “One person can make a difference in the world. One person can change a neighborhood.”
Bolla has quietly started discussions with local rabbis about the possibility of establishing an eruv there, a halachic boundary that allows carrying outside of one’s home on Shabbat; an eruv is traditionally a major inducement for young families with children, but the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the revered leader of the Lower East Side Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem yeshiva, ruled 50 years ago that an eruv was not allowed in Manhattan, a decision that subsequent rabbinic leaders have been reluctant to challenge.
Bolla’s efforts are the latest attempt to give the neighborhood a Jewish boost. In the early 1980s, the Lower East Side was part of a Neighborhood Preservation Project sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (a forerunner of today’s UJA-Federation) to build up a score of Jewish neighborhoods in Greater New York. Over the years, individual organizations like the United Jewish Council of the East Side, the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy and various synagogues have run a series of programs to aid the current residents and bring in new ones.
Bolla says he is moved “as a preservationist, as an architect, as a New Yorker.
“The rabbis need help” to keep the seats in their congregations filled,” he says. “I’m a businessman.”
Bolla, who grew up in New Jersey and upstate New York and became concerned about the Lower East Side’s fortunes while spending his days there on the Madison-Jackson project, says he is taking these actions to preserve the neighborhood’s Jewish character.
Since the 19th century, the Lower East Side has often been the first step for immigrants, especially Jewish newcomers.
“Before World War II there were close to 350,000 Jews downtown. The neighborhood lost more than half of its population between the wars as Jews migrated to the outer boroughs,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of “Jews in Gotham: New York Jews and their Changing City” (NYU Press, 2012). “However, unlike Harlem and other successor communities, it retained a significant Jewish population and cultural presence.”
Like many other established Jewish neighborhoods here, the Lower East Side experienced a flight of young Jews to the suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s. Since then, its Jewish population has slowly increased; couples and singles are attracted by reasonable tuition at area day schools, and housing prices that are lower than in such strongholds as the Upper West Side or Upper East Side. (Prices have risen some in recent years since the labor unions that controlled 4,000 units allowed longtime owners to sell for a profit at fair-market levels a dozen years ago.)
The neighborhood’s present Jewish population is estimated at 30,000, up from the low-water mark of 18,000 in the early 1990s.
The Lower East Side, one of New York City’s oldest settled areas, has undergone rapid gentrification since 2005, and was placed on The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s Most Endangered Places in 2005.
More recent signs of change: the headquarters of the Educational Alliance, a 123-year-old social service and cultural agency whose clientele has changed from nearly all Jewish to racially and ethnically mixed, is undergoing a 22-month, $50 million renovation, and nearby Gouvernour Hospital is also in the middle of major renovations. “We’re committed to be part of the neighborhood,” says Lynn Applebaum, Educational Alliance’s chief program officer.
“Everyone in the neighborhood has been seeing over the past 10 years or so how many young families of all backgrounds have been moving in,” says book editor Altie Karper, a lifelong resident of the Lower East Side. “It’s totally invigorated things here. People who can’t afford SoHo or Tribeca are flocking here and making an investment in the neighborhood.”
But, residents say, the Jewish flavor of the area is slowly ebbing. They point to the closing in recent decades of Ratner’s restaurant, Gertel’s bakery, the physical deterioration of the landmark Norfolk Street Synagogue that forced the congregation to move its worship services to a nearby shul on Henry Street, and the threatened shuttering of Israel Judaica.
Rabbi Feinstein’s eruv ban, some residents say, is keeping or forcing many Jewish couples away.
An eruv is not the only criterion for choosing where to live, Bolla says; the enclosed playgrounds attached to many apartment buildings offer plenty of space for Shabbat recreation.
“It’s a difficult thing to work around,” says Rabbi Zvi Romm, who has served as spiritual leader of the Bialystoker Synagogue, the neighborhood’s largest shul, for a decade. “We’re committed to upholding Rabbi Feinstein’s position on this matter.”
“The lack of an eruv is without question the biggest downfall of the community when it comes to attracting young couples,” says Josh Gombo, a high school guidance counselor who has lived on the Lower East Side for three and a half years and is thinking of leaving when he gets married. “Parents with young children are trapped every Shabbos, and while many of the co-op buildings are connected to each other by a fence in the backyard, life can become very difficult on Shabbos.
“Flatbush,” the Brooklyn neighborhood with a large Orthodox population, “has a questionable eruv and continues to get young families moving in, so clearly that problem is not a deal breaker for all,” Gombo adds.
Bolla says he plans to feature the Lower East Side’s advantages — easy commuting to Midtown, parks for children, a low crime rate — during the subsidized June Shabbaton, which will include lectures by prominent speakers, home hospitality hosting and a series of follow-up activities in coming months.
The project is “absolutely feasible,” William Rapfogel, a lifelong Lower East Side resident and executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, says of Bolla’s proposals — the Shabbaton, the upgraded Judaica store, the apartment building — “All the ideas are good ideas.”
“There’s no downside — only upside” to Bolla’s development of the Madison-Jackson building, says real estate developer Neil Rothenberg, who lives on the Lower East Side. The condos, which are selling at prices far below equivalent housing in Manhattan, offer “a very, very hip and cool alternative” to the extant apartment buildings in the area that are a half century old or older.
“He’s onto something; Lower Manhattan is where it’s at,” Rothenberg says.
“It’s not too late. It’s not too late at all” to re-establish the Lower East Side as a flourishing Jewish neighborhood, says Bolla, senior managing director at the Prudential Douglas Elliman residential brokerage firm. An expert in historic preservation, he developed the neighborhood’s old Jewish Daily Forward building into luxury condos.
“People will no longer see [the Lower East Side] as a place they’re trying to get away from,” he says. “I’m actually thinking of moving here.”