When real estate broker Abe Podolsky approached the owners of Dagan’s Kosher Pizza about relocating to Mill Basin, the negotiations took on all the drama of a major-league scout trying to sign a star pitcher.
“He offered us a long lease, good rent, whatever we want,” recalls Ayala Dagan, who had operated her pizzeria on Ralph Avenue in Canarsie for 16 years.
Feeling the pinch of Canarsie’s plummeting Jewish population, Dagan and her husband, Shmuel, saw the proposal as an offer they couldn’t refuse. Shortly before the summer they packed up their pizza ovens and moved east to the corner of Mill and Strickland avenues, the gateway to Mill Basin.
“I think this is the hottest neighborhood in Brooklyn today,” says Dagan, taking a break from the busy lunch crowd on a recent Friday. At her new location, business is booming.
Podolsky, a second-generation realtor whose family name appears on For Sale signs all over southern Brooklyn, sees a shomer Shabbat restaurant in Mill Basin as a key component of the neighborhood’s rebirth as a thriving observant Jewish community.
“When people drive by and see a kosher store or two they say, ‘hey, something’s happening here,'” says Podolsky, a Mill Basin resident who is working on bringing other restaurants and kosher shopping, as well as a Lubavitch Chabad house, to the neighborhood. “If you have to schlep into Flatbush, it doesn’t feel like a Jewish neighborhood.
“But Podolsky’s efforts have the feel of adding punctuation to a sentence already well in formation. Over the past decade Mill Basin (a small, upscale peninsula on Jamaica Bay with tree-lined streets) has been regaining the Jewish population that had leveled off during the 1980s.
Though precise figures on Mill Basin’s recent Jewish growth are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence abounds.
“You see it in the shuls, you see it on the streets, you see it in the customers,” says Ronny Chasid, owner of the Little Israel grocery store next to Dagan’s and a member of a newly formed Yemenite congregation in the neighborhood.
Filling in the gap left by post-baby boomers lured to the New Jersey suburbs are newly affluent emigres from the former Soviet Union, expatriate Israelis and upwardly mobile native Brooklynites from less stable or more humble environs.
Few neighborhoods in the five boroughs today retain large Jewish populations, and like such areas as Midwood and Borough Park in Brooklyn, Willowbrook in Staten Island or Riverdale in the Bronx, Mill Basin owes its Jewish stability and growth to a thriving Orthodox community.
In Mill Basin, the Flatbush Park Jewish Center is by far the largest congregation, and at 600 families is one of the largest Modern Orthodox synagogues in Brooklyn. “This is the mother shul of the community,” says Rabbi David Halpern, who has led the congregation for 48 years.
Three smaller congregations have sprouted recently: the Young Israel of Mill Basin on Avenue U, Sephardic Center of Mill Basin on Strickland Avenue and Zichron Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, which operates out of a private home on East 66th Street. The Yemenite minyan meets at the Flatbush Park Jewish Center, which bears the name of the first middle-income housing development constructed in Mill Basin.
Far from feeling threatened by the new shuls, Rabbi Halpern says, “They bring new people into the community.”
Conceived in the early 1950s as middle-income housing for baby-boom families, Mill Basin was constructed on landfill and was a lure for some 200 Jewish families who started the Jewish Center, initially a Conservative congregation, in a storefront. In 1954, the construction of Fillmore Gardens brought another 300 families, and most joined the shul. A mechitza was erected, forcing a small number of families to leave.
Six years later, the first two buildings of the current Jewish center were constructed. Membership reached a high of 675 families in the ’70s.
The sprawling Jewish Center, which now occupies 22 property lots, recently added its fourth annex, expanding classroom and office space for the Yeshiva of Crown Heights, which rents space from the center. (The yeshiva left Crown Heights 32 years ago.) Enrollment at the yeshiva is about 400, the vast majority of whom come from Mill Basin. The synagogue also has a 200-child afterschool Talmud Torah program.
Rabbi Halpern estimates the Jewish population in Mill Basin at about 70 percent. The community is so Jewish, in fact, that earlier this year a resident (as yet unidentified by police) felt comfortable writing a threatening letter to a Christian family, taking offense to a statue of the Virgin Mary on their property. The letter was condemned by community leaders.
Bob Kaplan, the director of Intergroup Relations and Community Concerns for the Jewish Community Relations Council, sees what he calls Mill Basin’s “renaissance” as a study in how a Jewish community can maintain vibrancy.
“The key to their success is a community identifying who it is and what type of population it wants to reach out to, and then working together to bring new institutions and new opportunity,” says Kaplan. “They’ve been proactive in bringing in a young rabbi for the [Sephardic] synagogue, building a new addition to the Crown Heights yeshiva and making sure that the leaders were responsive to the new population moving in.”
A more practical key to the area’s success, however, is likely its upscale housing.
“It has a country feel, a Long Island feel, right here in Brooklyn, with low taxes and good [property] values,” says Larry Birnbaum, a 39-year resident of Mill Basin and the owner of J Drugs, a small pharmacy chain in Brooklyn.
While Mill Basin has some amenities of a vibrant Orthodox community, such as an eruv, there is no mikveh and limited kosher shopping. The Mill Basin Kosher Deli on Avenue T, open Saturdays and under Conservative supervision, has been a fixture in the community for years. A glatt kosher falafel stand, Pita By The Bay, opened last year in the shadow of Kings Plaza.
While the selection of shopping and dining doesn’t rival nearby Flatbush, the availability of luxurious homes or property on which to build them may lead many Orthodox Jews to forsake a few conveniences.
While inexpensive attached row houses exist closer to Avenue U, a drive deep into the Mill Island section of the community along National Drive leads to more affluent ranch homes and even high-gated million-dollar mansions.
“There has been an explosion of home renovation and rebuilding,” says state Sen. Carl Kruger, a Mill Island resident. “It is one of the few remaining waterfront communities in Brooklyn, with one of the lowest crime rates, which makes it very stable.”
Podolsky estimates that home prices range “from $250,000 for a small, one-family to the millions.” Orthodox Jews account for 70 percent to 80 percent of new home sales in the neighborhood, he says.
But the area is not exclusively Orthodox. The 300-family Conservative Temple Sholom of Flatbush, a few blocks up Avenue U from the Jewish Center, also reports growth.
“Our Hebrew school is doing very well,” says Rabbi Ari Korenberg, a newcomer to the area. “We just started an afternoon Hebrew high school. The area is becoming more Jewish. Part of it is more frum, but it is a lot more Jewish.”
Like Flatbush Park, the temple draws members from surrounding areas such as Bergen Beach and Georgetown.
Some half-dozen Russian-speaking families have joined Temple Sholom in the past year, says the rabbi, and it enjoys a good relationship with the Jewish Center. Both participate in the local bikur cholim society and support the local Hatzoloh ambulance corps, and Flatbush Park uses the catering facilities at Temple Sholom.
Perhaps the most vibrant component of the heterogeneous mix of sojourners winding up in Mill Basin is a community of Jews from the Carpathian region of the former Soviet Union, on the borders of Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
“We feel closely connected,” says Irwin Roth, a native of Munkacz, Ukraine, who moved to Mill Basin in 1980. “There are some 60 families. We see each other at simchas, we all know each other.”
Those who have come to the area are generally middle- to upper-class professionals, including many doctors, who have established themselves in other Brooklyn neighborhoods before buying Mill Basin property. Many have young children.
Roth, an insurance broker, said he fell in love with the area after viewing houses there in the spring. He is now vice president of Flatbush Park Jewish Center. “They are very welcoming,” he says.
But just as Mill Basin once lost its luster among the descendants of its original settlers, Roth suggests history may ultimately repeat itself. He doubts his own teenagers will stay, and he sees fewer new couples staying with their parents in Mill Basin, suggesting the current boom may only be a temporary reprieve.
“Of the last half-dozen weddings, they all moved to Long Island except one,” he says. “I guess thatís the trend.”