A chasidic resident of Williamsburg with a growing family, Shmiel Stern decided to leave the Brooklyn neighborhood where he had grown up.
But the Sterns didn’t go far in their hunt for more space for their six children — they moved several blocks south, to Bedford-Stuyvesant, and a larger apartment. That was six years ago. Stern, 38, said his family was the first Jewish family on his block, which at the time had “one shul and no mikveh.”
Today, the freelance writer said, 40 to 50 Jewish families live on the block, in the northern part of the neighborhood bordering Williamsburg. There are two mikvehs nearby. And the number of synagogues and small shtiebles at which he can daven? “I can’t count,” Stern said.
Not unlike the Jewish influx in Harlem over the last decade — a satellite of the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side opened there last year — the ultra-Orthodox push into Bed-Stuy is part of the gentrification trend that is spreading all over the city. It’s fueled in large part by the rapid growth of Brooklyn’s charedi community; seven of 10 Jewish children born in New York City are born into ultra-Orthodox families, according to a recent Pew study.
Chasidim from Brooklyn, in search of more and larger dwellings, have in recent years decamped to Jersey City, Staten Island and Rockland County. Tensions with neighbors have sometimes followed. (Just last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school board of the Rockland town of East Ramapo, which is dominated by Orthodox Jews, charging that the at-large voting system for electing board members “disenfranchises minority voters” who are largely black and Hispanic.)
But it’s not just Satmar chasidim moving into Bed-Stuy, which has over recent years sloughed off the old stereotype of a neighborhood infested with drugs and crime.
Moreen Daus, an Israeli-born real estate broker who lives in Mill Basin and has worked in Bed-Stuy 13 years, said she has witnessed young, secular Israelis and non-Orthodox young professionals flocking to the southern part of the neighborhood bordering Crown Heights. Home to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, that neighborhood in recent years has attracted a growing and vibrant mix of young Modern Orthodox and liberal, social-justice minded Jews; some of them are now finding a home in Bed-Stuy.
Daus won’t be far behind. “As soon as I find something I like,” she said, she’ll be moving to Bed-Stuy. “It’s got a vibe I like. It has the feel of a suburb.”
Among the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, Bed-Stuy, which in the middle years of the last century was home to a sizeable Jewish population, is attracting young professionals — both black and white — who once would never have thought of living there. The streets are safer, housing prices are below those in most of New York City but starting to rise, and subway lines offer an easy commute to Manhattan. Rents in the neighborhood are reportedly 15 percent lower than those in Williamsburg, but they are on the rise; in roughly the last decade, the average sales price of an apartment in Bed-Stuy jumped 67.8 percent to $877,225.
“In the past 15 years,” according to a recent State Comptroller’s “Economic Snapshot” of the neighborhood, “Bedford-Stuyvesant’s economy has grown much faster than the City’s economy as a whole.”
Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the neighborhood’s white population increased from 2.4 percent to 15 percent, while the black population shrank from 75 percent to 60 percent. Bed-Stuy is also attracting a growing number of Hispanics, many from the Dominican Republic.
Most of the whites moving to Bed-Stuy are Satmar chasidim, said author Kay Hymowitz, an expert on Brooklyn neighborhoods.
The number of Jewish residents — at least several thousand, according to residents familiar with the community — is still relatively small compared to established Jewish neighborhoods. (No official census figure of Bed-Stuy’s Jewish population is available; the neighborhood was not included in UJA-Federation’s last Jewish community study, in 2011.) But the growth has caught the attention of the Chabad movement, which, according to Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, director of Prospect Park-based Chabad Heights, has in the last few years expanded its outreach to Bed-Stuy.
On a stroll around Bed-Stuy you cross paths with a cross-section of black and whites, Latinos and Asians. The streets are lined with churches and mosques and well-kept brownstones. In fact, many of the neighborhood’s old synagogues were converted into churches, the Magen Davids still visible on Christian houses of worship. And in a sign of the times, posters tacked to the wooden boards around a construction site advertise — in Yiddish and English — that flu shots are available at a nearby health clinic.
Within a block’s radius of the corner of Myrtle and Bedford avenues, a few blocks south of the border with Williamsburg, are a large synagogue (atop of which a Shabbos siren drew criticism from some nearby residents last year), two kosher butcher shops, a large kosher supermarket, a health clinic, a kosher ice cream parlor and kosher sushi restaurant, several Jewish-owned businesses and apartment buildings in which chasidic Jews live. “This is not even the busiest block,” said Stern – other nearby corners also are lined with Jewish institutions and Jewish businesses.
Writing this summer in the online publication brooklynbk.com, Hymowitz described a Bed-Stuy where a visitor would see “bewigged women in long skirts pushing double strollers to kosher food establishments past new apartment buildings with staggered balconies where Jews can build their Sukkoth huts.”
The neighborhood, she wrote, once filled with “hopeless black poverty and mean streets,” now appears to be “the next Park Slope and Williamsburg,” a place of “gentrification and increasing affluence.”
Yet, economic problems remain in Bed-Stuy.
More than 30 percent of the neighborhood still falls below the poverty line; that’s a 35 percent decrease since 2000, but “still very high by regional standards,” Hymowitz told The Jewish Week. Bed-Stuy’s crime rate, while declining in step with rates across the city, “remains among the worst in the city.”
According to the State Comptroller’s report on the neighborhood, “The number of major felony crimes declined by one-third between 2000 and 2016. “Violent crime (murder, rape, robbery and assault) declined even more (44 percent).” However, the report notes, “the crime rate per 1,000 residents in 2016 was significantly higher in Bedford-Stuyvesant (18.4) than in the City overall (12.2).”
Crime wasn’t a deal-breaker for Shmiel Stern, an indication of changing times in the neighborhood. “My family needed space. I wasn’t afraid at all,” he said.
As in some other neighborhoods into which Orthodox Jews have moved, there are sometimes tensions over affordable housing, a problem that plagues neighborhoods across the city.
United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, which promotes affordable housing in Williamsburg’s chasidic and wider community, partnered in 2009 with the Hispanic-oriented Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council in promoting a major, affordable housing complex in Bed-Stuy’s Broadway Triangle, an area bordered by Broadway, Union and Flushing avenues. But a State Supreme Court injunction, sought by the Broadway Triangle Coalition, which had claimed that the UJO-backed plans favored the chasidic community, blocked the development, agreeing that the housing plans discriminated against minorities; as of this writing, the Rabsky Group, non-Williamsburg chasidic developers, is awaiting a city go-ahead for its own privately owned, market-rate complex on the site.
Community leaders, however, stress that the various ethnic groups in Bed-Stuy have learned to know each other better in recent years, and to accommodate each other’s needs. Interviews with UJO head Rabbi David Neiderman and Assemblyman Tremaine Wright, who represents Bed-Stuy, suggest that the tension between Jews and Latinos that had existed over housing in Williamsburg, and between Jews and blacks in Crown Heights, have largely not carried over into Bed-Stuy.
According to Assemblyman Wright, while some interracial tension is present, as it is other city neighborhoods where the majority black population feels displaced by new residents who cause an increase in housing prices, “it’s not a Jewish-black thing.”
The feelings of the area’s long-time African-American residents about the newly arrived white residents are “mixed,” said Yedidya Saadya Ben-Yehudah, a black Jew who grew up in Bed-Stuy and recently moved to Fort Greene. Some Bed-Stuy Jews look at the newcomers as a possible “bridge” between communities, said Ben-Yehuda, who works in medical sales. “Some people feel they’re being booted out. They sell their home and they can’t even afford to rent in the community.
“With neighbors,” he said, “it may take some time to become neighborly.”
According to real estate agent Morgan Munsey, who said he has witnessed the growth of Bed-Stuy’s Jewish community, many veteran residents of the neighborhood resent the arrival of any large number of newcomers, not necessarily Jews. “Old families don’t like change,” he said.
In the meantime, the demographic reshaping of Bed-Stuy continues.
Some recent signs of the neighborhood’s growing Jewish presence: Last year, Wright’s successful campaign for the State Assembly seat in Bed-Stuy issued a flyer that included Yiddish; last year, Shai Greenfield, a chasidic resident of Bed-Stuy, was appointed to the neighborhood’s Community Board 3, an advisory group; this summer, a kosher restaurant owned by a young Israeli couple opened this summer on Bed-Stuy’s southern fringe; last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio discontinued street cleaning on Saturdays along Myrtle Avenue, to allow Sabbath-observant drivers to keep their cars parked there without being ticketed.
Also this year, G&E Spirits took a small step, adding a kosher Israeli wine to its stock.
And 18 months ago, a group of young Jewish families in Bed-Stuy formed Bed-Stuy Bushwick Bonim, an independent organization, supported by a small grant from UJA-Federation of New York, that sponsors monthly vegetarian Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations.
“We’re totally building community,” said Angie Lieber, a Bed-Stuy resident for four years who helped found the Bonim (Hebrew for builders) group.
She moved there, she said, because “I didn’t want to rent anymore.” Affordable brownstones were the draw in what she saw as “an up-and-coming neighborhood.”
The 50 to 60 people who have taken part in Bonim activities share her feelings, Lieber said.
Rachel Weinstein White, who moved to Bed-Stuy a decade ago from Pennsylvania (her husband is a fifth-generation resident of the neighborhood), said some of her friends were worried when she chose to live there.
She wasn’t? “Not at all.” She had walked around the area before moving in, and felt at home.
White is the founder of Fig Tree, a three-year-old independent Jewish educational program that serves families (many of them intermarried and unaffiliated) in Brooklyn. Many of the 150 children who take part in its activities are from Bed-Stuy.
“I cannot express how happy we are” to live in Bed-Stuy, she said. “We love it.”
The irony of Jews returning to Bed-Stuy (their exodus was spurred by black migration from the South in a “white-flight” pattern that played out in many neighborhoods, and the destruction of homes to make way for public housing) is not lost on historians. In a city defined by flux and ever-shifting demographics, “this is a continuing story,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. As is happening just 14 miles to the north in Harlem, Jews are “returning to a neighborhood that was once theirs.”
Chabad Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum suggests a different kind of irony about the new Bed-Stuy. The chasidic movements of Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar have not always been on the best of terms. But now, as members of each head to Bed-Stuy, he said they are finding common ground in a neighborhood where for decades virtually no Jews lived.
“In the not-too-distant future,” as the Jews of Williamsburg and Crown Heights expand towards each other, he said, “the inevitable result will produce an atomic marriage in Bed-Stuy that bridges them both.”
Perhaps. But in the meantime, Israelis Shai Asias and his wife Shira will also have a say in redefining the neighborhood.
When they opened their new kosher restaurant, Mama Kitchen, last summer on Rochester Street, “everyone said, ‘You’re meshuge … nobody will come,’” Shai said.
Instead, with no advertising budget, the couple’s menu of schnitzel and fried eggplant and mouthwatering homemade hummus has drawn a steady crowd of customers to the half-dozen stools inside and the few tables outside. “We get people from all over,” Orthodox and secular Jews, non-Jews from the neighborhood, Shai said.
“Sometimes,” at lunchtime, he said, “they’re lined up” on the street.