Talk about a Jewish diaspora.
Cut off from the Manhattan mainland and its very Jewish heartbeat, the Jews of Roosevelt Island may be the least-known Jewish community in the area.
Which is OK by them.
“Where else in New York do you walk down, literally, Main Street, and see the same people over and over again?” says Rabbi Leanna Moritt, spiritual leader of the island’s lone shul, the Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation (RIJC), a progressive, egalitarian synagogue founded 23 years ago. “It’s almost like a little ‘small-town USA’ right in the middle of New York.”
About 350 Jews call the island, a two-mile-long tract of land in the East River, home. Previously home to a smallpox hospital, mental institution and prison, Roosevelt Island has only been a residential area since 1975. The population is diverse, with many apartments held by United Nations workers and employees of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, just over the river. The island, owned by the city but leased to the state, has a population of approximately 12,000 people and is linked to Manhattan’s East Side via a tram that runs alongside the 59th Street Bridge.
Despite its tiny size, the community manages to sustain two Jewish institutions — the 50-member-family RIJC, which has occupied its own sanctuary in a shared building on the island for about 15 years, and the island’s Chabad-Lubavitch Center, which opened four years ago.
As befits a “small town,” Rabbi Zalman and Nechama Duchman run their Lubavitch outpost entirely out of their own home. The table in their living room can seat up to 24 people for Friday-night dinner (they’ve held many such dinners since coming to the island); when all the leaves on the table are extended, one of every eight Roosevelt Island Jews can gather there.
“The opportunity on the island is very unique,” said Rabbi Duchman. “On the one hand, you’re so close to so much. On the other, it’s an oasis.”
The rabbi says that “within a short while” of moving to Roosevelt Island, “we got to know a lot of Jewish people.” Though the center has no regular services — Rabbi Duchman walks to the Chabad in Long Island City, Queens, on Saturday mornings — the couple hosts Friday-night dinners, Passover seders, Chanukah and Purim parties. And they have built their own sukkah for the community.
But they’re “careful not to do anything when the RIJC would have events,” said Rabbi Duchman.
The RIJC, a regular presence on the island since the late-1980s, holds Shabbat services twice a month, and on all the Jewish holidays.
“We’re the only synagogue on the island,” said Rabbi Moritt, who took over the shul in 2007. The congregation, she says, is made up of mostly “left-of-center, modern, egalitarian Jews.”
Though she cherishes the feel of the island, Rabbi Moritt doesn’t actually live there, choosing instead to call Tenafly, N.J., home. “It takes about 20 minutes in my little Prius,” she said of her commute, noting that her responsibilities as a rabbi are mostly part-time. But if the community grew, she says, relocating would be “on the table.”
For many, the island is a bedroom community, where residents work and socialize in other boroughs, returning only for a good night’s sleep. But for Judith Berdy, a 34-year island resident and president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, there is nowhere she’d rather be.
“It’s very unique — it’s like an old-time community,” says Berdy, who is also a past president of the RIJC.
“The original [apartment] buildings in general house a more older and stable population,” she says. “The newer buildings, the ones that opened in 2006, have a more active, young family kind of social life.”
“The younger families didn’t come here like we did,” she says about her own family. “They’re coming here to sleep, to spend a few years and then move on — they’re not coming here to establish roots.”
The RIJC, which used to hold weekly services and once offered a Hebrew school, is affected by parents who send their children to schools in Manhattan, and residents who attend synagogues off the island, says Berdy.
But for Zalman and Nechama Duchman, both 30, living on the island is a big part of their job.
Though they also have some of their needs filled off the island — their two oldest children attend a Chabad school in Crown Heights and most of their kosher groceries come from Brooklyn or Queens (Nechama even shops for a handful of other residents while she’s there) — they strive to create a warm neighborhood on the island.
“This is our community, and we all know each other,” said Rabbi Duchman. “Our goal is to reach every single Jew on this island.”
One such Jew is Tammy, who moved to the community recently from Jerusalem with her husband and two children. Tammy, who asked that her last name not be used, was placed in housing on the island through her husband’s job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
“When we got the notice [that they would be moving to the island], “we Googled it to find out about Roosevelt Island,” Tammy said. “When we saw, we cried a little.”
But after making the move, Tammy says she couldn’t be happier. “It’s an amazing place to live,” she said. “It’s greener than Manhattan; you feel very safe for the kids. I kind of feel like it’s a kibbutz.”
In fact, a visitor would be hard pressed to believe he is still technically in Manhattan, with the island’s lush, open green spaces and suburban charm. The island has only one named street — Main Street — with the exception of the 500-foot River Road near the northern tip. From most points on the island, which, at its widest, is 800 feet, a visitor can catch a glimpse of the skyscrapers of Manhattan as well as the power plants along the edge of Queens.
And for observant Jews like the Duchmans, there is an unexpected benefit to living on the water-bound strip.
“We have the best halachic eruv,” said Rabbi Duchman, referring to the boundary that allows observant Jews to carry belongings outside their homes on the Sabbath. “There is a physical sea wall completely surrounding it,” he said, and even the Roosevelt Island Bridge is a drawbridge, meaning it can potentially be closed.
“I can’t think of anywhere else that’s like it,” Rabbi Duchman said. “It’s as kosher as the Old City of Jerusalem.”