On the very streets where German Americans cheered for Max Schmeling in his heavyweight championship fight against Joe Louis, young Orthodox families, with multiple children in tow, push strollers along York Avenue.
On the same streets where Germans held pro-Nazi Bund rallies and where, as late as the 1990s, East 86th Street was dotted with German restaurants and bakeries, the Modern Orthodox Ramaz day school now has its latest outpost — the Ramaz Early Childhood Center on York Avenue and East 90th Street, which opened last fall. (Previously, the center was located elsewhere and open only to Ramaz faculty and staff.)
Welcome to the new Yorkville, one with an increasingly Orthodox presence.
For years, Jewish life on the Upper East Side has congregated a half-mile west of York and First, on Lexington Avenue. That’s where the venerable Modern Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, its Ramaz Day School, the Conservative Or Zarua and the 92nd Street Y form a strong nucleus. (The Reform hub is Temple Shaaray Tefila on 79th Street and Second Avenue.)
Now, Jewish life is pushing east — far east — and the area is attracting young families as well as singles.
The changes in the neighborhood lured Stacie Glick uptown. The 29-year-old, who works in the financial services industry, had been living in Murray Hill and learning more about traditional Judaism by attending programs run by the Manhattan Jewish Experience outreach organization.
“I decided I needed to move uptown in order to lead an observant life,” said Glick, who grew up secular in Roslyn, L.I.
Glick, who is single, chose the Upper East Side, where she attends the “Intermediate Minyan” on Shabbat at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, goes to events sponsored by MJE and Chabad Lubavitch of the Upper East Side, and shares Shabbat meals with other young singles and observant families.
“It’s the perfect place for someone like me to live,” she said.
Matthew and Gealia Friend moved crosstown, from the Upper West Side, two years ago. He works on digital partnerships for Mastercard, she’s a speech therapist; both are active members of Kehilath Jeshurun.
The Friends, who have an 18-month-old daughter, are typical of young couples (he’s 30, she’s 28) that have chosen the Upper East Side, Matthew said.
The neighborhood, he said, combines the “sophistication” of Manhattan with the “atmosphere of a small town.” He said it lacks nothing for a Torah-observant family, citing the range of kosher products available at the area’s Fairway supermarket, on East 86th Street, and further uptown at Costco on 116th. The area, he said, “is very self-sufficient.”
The couple, who attended religious services at several Upper West Side congregations but were not members of any, quickly joined Kehilath Jeshurun and became active members of the synagogue as a way of establishing more roots in the community, he said.
Matthew said he regularly notices new faces in his KJ minyan, where he serves as a gabbai. Some friends, another Orthodox couple, moved two months ago to the Upper East Side from the Upper West Side. “They were priced out of the Upper West Side,” wanted to stay in Manhattan, and were looking for an area that offered “full” possibilities, including a variety of kosher restaurants, he said.
Residents and observers point to several reasons for the neighborhood’s Jewish revival. One is the presence, and continued growth, of the 140-year-old Kehilath Jeshurun, which offers a wide variety of activities as well as its prestigious Ramaz day school. Its “Beginners Minyan,” for instance, has been a big draw for those looking to deepen their observance.
Another reason for the area’s Jewish growth is the establishment two decades ago of the Chabad-Lubavitch center, which in 2006 opened the area’s only fully functioning mikveh.
Experts also cite an increase in religiously oriented programming at the 92nd Street Y, and they especially point to housing prices that are lower than in many other parts of the borough.
“For the 23-33 demographic, life on the Upper East Side is significantly more affordable than on the Upper West Side,” said Rabbi Ben Skydell of Congregation Orach Chaim, an Orthodox congregation on Lexington and 94th Street. “The Upper East Side has a more big-tent feel than many other metropolitan area communities. It’s not uncommon for someone to attend three different shuls on a given Shabbat, each of a different denomination.”
Rabbi Mark Wildes, founding director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, which has programming on the east and west sides of Central Park, sees a slightly different dynamic at play.
“The classic phenomenon of the single Jew moving to the West Side to meet his/her bashert is now being challenged,” he said. “People who just don’t want the Upper West Side ‘scene’ and prefer a little more anonymity are moving to the East, where they can also meet other young people but in less of what they perceive to be a ‘shtetl’ environment.”
Stacie Glick’s friend Jen Bernstein, a native of Baltimore, also lived in Murray Hill. Modern Orthodox, she would walk some 70 blocks north to attend Shabbat services at Kehilath Jeshurun.
Then Bernstein, 28, who works as a fashion product developer, got a “great deal” on an apartment on the Upper East Side a year and a half ago. She moved there too. Like her friend, she regularly takes part in Jewish activities sponsored by the area’s Jewish institutions.
Much of the area’s Jewish growth is fueled by families with young children, young professionals, and “empty nesters who have moved to the city from the larger suburban areas,” said Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue. While her East 51st Street congregation is not technically part of the Upper East Side, she noted that it too has experienced an increase in membership similar to the synagogues further north.
Several of the area’s newer food establishments speak to its growing Jewish presence: the just-opened glatt kosher Cake Land bakery on York and 77th; Prime Butcher Baker, an upscale shop run by Joey Allaham of the Prime Grill restaurant, which opened two years ago just a block from the five-decade-old Park East Kosher on Second Avenue; and the stylish vegan restaurant and wine bar, V Note, which was opened in late 2010, at First Avenue and 80th Street, by the owner of the Upper West Side’s vegetarian restaurant Blossom.
And the Lexington Avenue corridor will get an added boost sometime next year when a 12-story, $50 million Sephardic Community Center named for Moise Safra, brother of the Lebanese-born banker and philanthropist Edmond J. Safra, is expected to open on Lexington Avenue at 83rd Street; it will house a synagogue to handle the Upper East Side’s growing Syrian Jewish population, as well as a kosher café, a pool and exercise rooms. (Neighbors are not thrilled with the glass façade, which, they say, is not in keeping with the neighborhood’s prevailing architecture.)
The Jewish revival here is largely — but not exclusively — an Orthodox phenomenon.
“Pretty much all the synagogues” are flourishing, said Rabbi Burt Siegel, an Upper East Sider who serves as spiritual leader of The Shul of New York, which is Reform.
“There is a very energetic Jewish life on the Upper East Side … manifesting itself in worship, study, cultural expressions and other opportunities for social activism and engagement,” said Rabbi Joshua Davidson, who recently became senior spiritual leader at Temple Emanu-El, the city’s largest Reform congregation.
Rabbi Scott Bolton, who took over the pulpit last year at Congregation Or Zarua, which is Conservative, talks of increased membership and increased interest in adult education at his synagogue.
The area’s growth in Jewish religious life “is an exemplar that upward mobility [and] affluence and acculturation does not necessarily mean disengagement from traditional forms of Jewish behavior,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “Greater observance among the Orthodox is reflective of the general trend” in American Jewry.
The revival of observance is a statistical anomaly, as the area’s Jewish population has actually dropped by about 10 percent in the past decade, according to UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study.
“The numbers are down, but the participation rate is up,” said Rabbi Elie Weinstock, associate rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun. “People who move in are people who participate.”
Other residents of the area agree. Many aging residents of the Upper East Side, which was long known as the city’s most-assimilated Jewish neighborhood, a venue for Jews who had achieved financial success but maintained little formal connection with Jewish life, had died or moved away. Today’s residents are younger: nearly 60 percent are between the age of 18 and 64, according to the UJA-Federation study.
The revival has spawned what Rabbi Bolton calls “a spirit of cooperation among rabbis” of all denominations. Rabbis from 11 congregations on the Upper East Side, representing the three major branches of Judaism, last year formed a Torah Learning Coalition, which sponsors a series of lectures and classes at their various shuls on a rotating basis. And members of Orach Chaim, Or Zarua and Kehilath Jeshurun recently took part in a joint educational program on Jewish burial under the auspices of the Vaad Harabanim of Queens Chavra Kadisha.
“All the shuls in the neighborhood are thriving,” said Doina Bryskin, who has lived on the Upper East Side for more than 40 years. On a typical Saturday morning, she says, “you see hundreds of [baby] carriages,” belonging to young families, in the lobby of Kehilath Jeshurun. “You see more stores that are closed” on Shabbat.
Bryskin is the owner of Judaica Classics, the only free-standing Judaica store on the Upper East Side. She set up the business on Lexington Avenue near 84th Street two years ago, after a fire at Kehilath Jeshurun, where she had been based, gutted the building.
Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, executive director of the neighborhood’s Chabad Lubavitch network of outreach centers, calls Jewish life on the Upper East Side “New York’s best-kept secret.”
His center moved eight years ago into a seven-story, 17,000-square foot building that offers an early-morning kollel chavruta-style learning program, a pre-school, adult education classes throughout the day, separate programs for young professionals and a Friendship Circle group for special needs children. “We’ve outgrown the space,” he said.
Chabad and Kehilath Jeshurun — in an effort largely directed by Rachel and Rabbi Daniel Kraus, co-directors of community education at the congregation — coordinate a network of young Jews who host Shabbat meals and other social events in their apartments. The Krauses hold KJ events in such off-site venues as Barnes & Noble and the Fairway supermarket, which opened its Upper East Side location two years ago.
People from other New York neighborhoods “are surprised there are [Orthodox] synagogues on the Upper East Side,” said Rabbi Raphael Benchimol, Moroccan-born spiritual leader of the 23-year-old Manhattan Sephardic Congregation on East 75th Street. “For them it is more surprising,” he says, that there are a large number of Sephardic Jews, predominantly Syrians who have moved from Brooklyn, in the tony Manhattan neighborhood and are ready to support the soon-to-open Sephardic Community Center.
Like residents of other parts of Manhattan, some young Jews on the Upper East Side are likely to leave when they start raising families and find more-affordable housing in the suburbs.
Stacie Glick said that might happen to her when she gets married and needs more space for children. It won’t be an immediate decision, she said. “In the first years of my marriage, I would like to stay here.”
Other neighborhoods profiled in the series: Ditmas Park, Inwood, Tribeca and Greenpoint.