When Tima Ashurov decided to open a restaurant specializing in Eastern European delicacies, he never considered Brighton Beach.
The south Brooklyn mecca for Russian immigrants is already teeming with eateries. It’s not his scene. "It’s a different mentality there," says Ashurov, who emigrated from Nal’chik, in Russia’s Caucasus region in 1990.
Ashurov, who now lives in Brooklynís Midwood section, set his sights instead across the Verrazano Narrows to Staten Island, where a former pizzeria in a Forest Avenue mall has become Tima’s Place. Interestingly, the neighborhood is called West Brighton.
"I wanted to be one of the first," says Ashurov, 37, serving up potato and cheese pierogies whipped up by his mother, Rosa, who works the kitchen. Also on the menu is Chicken Kiev, shish kebab and Russian style pork. "Brooklyn is very packed with Russians."
Business isn’t exactly booming: he served two lunchtime customers on a recent Thursday afternoon, both Brooklyn residents who work nearby. But Ashurov may be on the cusp of a profitable trend.
Russian Jews are an increasing presence on Staten Island, contributing heavily to the 27 percent rise over the past decade in the Jewish population in New Yorkís least populous borough, according to the Jewish Community Survey recently released by UJA-Federation. Brooklyn was the only other borough to gain Jews, by a smaller 23 percent.
The survey found that more than one of four Staten Island Jews (27 percent) speaks Russian. That’s some 11,000 people, making up 5 percent of all Russian immigrants in the New York area, tied with Nassau County and surpassed only by Brooklyn and Queens.
Although the precise rate of growth cannot easily be quantified, Jacob Ukeles, who compiled the survey, believes it is a dramatic recent development.
"We know from anecdotal evidence that most of this population has arrived in the last 10 years," says Ukeles. "It seems to suggest that the first area of settlement was Brighton Beach, and people then moved to Bay Ridge or Manhattan Beach [in Brooklyn], and Staten Island is the third area of immigration."
Staten Island, which now has a Jewish population of 42,000, seems to have proven attractive to immigrants who have established a middle- or upper-class livelihood because of its suburban feel, affordable homes, relatively low taxes and proximity to the rest of the city.
"It’s much different from Brooklyn," says Yelana Simanovich, who recently left a Midwood apartment with her family for a house in Pleasant Plains on Staten Island’s South Shore. "The lifestyle is much more quiet, people are more polite on the roads and in the stores."
A bookkeeper at the Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach, Simonovich, a native of Perm in the Ural mountains, said she was also drawn by the quality of public schools like P.S. 3, where her son Jason will enter fourth grade in the fall. "They have a very good latchkey program," that keeps kids at school until their parents get home, she said.
Lewis Stolzenberg, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island, said areas of the South Shore, like Huguenot and Eltingville have become attractive to Russian immigrants. "There are whole areas that have been settled in the south beach by Russian families," he says. "They are buying their first houses in many cases."
Simanovich said she has seen no overt signs of discrimination against newcomers. "The people seem very nice, although you can’t read what’s on their minds," she said.
Aside from young families, there is also a large share of single and elderly immigrants that require more resettlement aid, and the JCC responded last June by initiating regularly scheduled English and citizenship courses.
"We have about 75 Russian Jews that are attending classes regularly," says Rose Shargo, who runs the programs. "Most of them are people in [subsidized] senior housing."
The JCC has also entered into a partnership with a Brooklyn-based Russian ballet school to train aspiring dancers on the island, has applied for grants from federal and state agencies for immigrant-oriented youth programs, and has had inquiries about a day care program for Russian-speaking children: an option it is exploring.
The 3,000-family JCC itself is a testament to Jewish growth on Staten Island. The center, which has sites on the North and South Shores, is entering the final phase of environmental approval to begin construction of $28 million, 100,000-square-foot facility on eight acres in Sea View to replace its aging facility on Victory Boulevard. The South Shore site will remain open, while the new facility, located mid-island, will house a fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, a kosher cafe, music rooms, senior and youth lounges and classrooms.
"When I came here 23 years ago, the budget was less than a million dollars," says Stolzenberg. "Now it’s more than $10 million."
A key factor in Staten Island’s growth has been the sprawling Orthodox community of Willowbrook, anchored around the Young Israel of Staten Island.
There are many other synagogues, including bustling Reform and Conservative congregations like Temple Israel in Randall Manor and Temple Emanu-el in Port Richmond. But with 550 families, the Young Israel, believed to be the largest branch of the Young Israel movement in the area, is second to none in growth.
"The congregation started about 35 years ago, in people’s homes," says Albert Zachter, the congregation’s president, who moved across the harbor from the Lower East Side in 1971, and has since lured many of his relatives there. "Once the [original] synagogue building opened, there was an initial spurt, and when the addition opened [in the early 80s], there was more growth. We now have five different minyanim on Shabbos."
The growth is a testament to the work of Rabbi Yaacov Marcus, who led the congregation for nearly 30 years until moving to Israel in 2001. The shul now occupies an entire block and includes a catering hall, mikveh, basketball court, classrooms and a large outdoor playground. Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield is the current spiritual leader.
Staten Island’s thriving yeshivas (including the co-ed Jewish Foundation School and the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which has separate boys’ and girls’ campuses, and a high school, Tiferes Torah) have allowed the borough to avoid the pitfall of many Jewish communities: the loss of younger families who seek greener pastures for their children.
"It is a very congenial community, crossing various age groups, and the children who grow up here seem to be staying here as well," says Zachter.
One area that has been lacking is the availability of kosher dining and shopping. But Zachter says thatís improving.
"It’s not the same as the Five Towns’ Central Avenue," he says. "But we do have kosher Chinese and pizza and we have had some additional interest."
That may include Tima Ashurov, who says he’d much rather be selling kosher food if he can find the right venue. "It’s my dream," he says, taking a break from the kitchen at Tima’s Place. "I would like to be closed on Shabbos. I come from the Caucusus, where we are very religious. We have just half a percent of assimilation in my village."
A new father who until recently was delivering produce for a Jewish store in Crown Heights, Ashurov says he’s also looking for a house on Staten Island. "It’s very beautiful here," he says. "I want to live close to the beach. You can get a house here for half the price of Brooklyn, with more land, country style. And the people are very nice."