Perhaps it was only a matter of time.
In a city defined by runaway gentrification — where high-fashion shops like Stella McCartney’s and high-end hotels have nearly nudged out the last of the meatpackers, and where Williamsburg has become hipster central — Chabad has come to the Bowery.
And the popular outreach group that sniffs out where Jews are migrating next has in recent years gained a foothold in Harlem, another fast-morphing neighborhood shedding its old skin.
On a recent night in late February, one story up from a street where neighborhood denizens once drank during the day and slept at night — or vice versa — a few hundred people socialized over sushi and kabobs and kosher wine. In the background, klezmer music played.
It was the inauguration of the Chabad Serving NYU on the Bowery.
A hundred-odd blocks north on another recent evening, across the street from a once-abandoned building where squatters lived until recent years and drug deals and muggings kept the sidewalks empty after dark, a few dozen people sat and sang and schmoozed for several hours. When they walked out later that night, they joined other people strolling outside, passing a brick-façade, doorman apartment building that has just risen across the street.
It was a Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat meal sponsored by Chabad of Harlem, on Manhattan Avenue at 118th Street.
The Chabad center inauguration, and the Shabbat service, in Manhattan neighborhoods that until recently had a negligible Jewish presence, are the latest signs of a deepening national trend. A growing number of young Jews here and across the country have, in the last decade, decamped to areas that traditionally had little Jewish — or middle-class — populations.
“There’s a lot going on” in the Bowery area now to attract a young crowd, said Daniella Rohr, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate who lives in the area. Speaking during the inauguration ceremony, she ticked off fashionable restaurants, bars and other forms of nightlife. (And the area’s cultural life got a big boost a few years ago when the fashionably designed contemporary art outpost, The New Museum, opened on the Bowery.) The Chabad center, Rohr said, “is a big reason we stay here. It will attract a critical mass.”
Maya Finch, an art historian who found herself being priced out of housing in Manhattan five years ago, was about “to give up” on the borough. Then she decided to look at Harlem. “I knew it wasn’t dangerous.” She moved here, and discovered “there are Jews in the neighborhood.”
Stereotypes of the Bowery and Harlem as places where one would fear to tread are hopelessly outdated, say the Jews who are fueling and leading the Jewish revivals there. As outdated, says Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg, a semi-retired printing executive who founded the Chabad of Harlem, as the perception of the West Side as a gang-filled outpost in the 1950s musical “West Side Story.”
Residents of both areas, men and women, say they feel safe traveling in and to the neighborhoods at all times, and, in the case of Harlem, raising children there.
The Harlem where Rabbi Gansbourg now leads a series of programs on Shabbat and during the week — with the assistance of his wife, Goldie, his son, Rabbi Yossel Gansbourg and his daughter-in-law Mushke Gansbourg — is fast changing. It is now an increasingly upscale (Fairway and Starbucks are there), in-demand, multiracial neighborhood where the crime rate is going down and apartment prices are going up.
While Rabbi Gansbourg led Shabbat worship services on a recent Saturday morning, a steady stream of pedestrians walked across the street, pushing shopping carts and baby carriages. Almost all of them looked like typical sidewalk strollers on the Upper West Side, and almost all of them were white.
For the first time in a century, The New York Times reported two years ago, Harlem’s white population is larger than its African-American population. Outside of New York City, a similar situation is playing out in such locations as inner-city Los Angeles and Detroit, where emissaries have opened Chabad Houses in recent years.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which established its outreach reputation years ago on American college campuses and in underserved Jewish communities abroad, is fast becoming American Jewry’s canary in the coal mine, sensing the stirrings of an emerging Jewish community and moving in to offer its usual mix of religious and educational programming.
Chabad representatives, typically young couples, “have not necessarily spurred the migration” to these emerging Jewish areas, “but to their credit they go where Jews live and establish community outposts,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American-Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of “When Harlem was Jewish, 1870-1930.” “I predict more synagogues and Jewish institutions will find their way uptown.”
The Chabad Houses in Harlem and on the Bowery, though spurred by a common goal of spreading Yiddishkeit to an often unchasidic, unaffiliated brand of Jew, serve vastly different clienteles. In Harlem, mostly young families — the foyer to the community room where services and meals take place was crowded with baby carriages Saturday morning, and a dozen kids scampered on the floor. On the Bowery, mostly college students or recent graduates — the new center, geared to the NYU crowd, is clearly labeled Chabad Serving NYU on the Bowery, not Chabad on the Bowery.
The Bowery — the name comes from the Dutch word for farm, Bouwerie — was originally the road that led to the farm of New Amsterdam’s governor, Peter Stuyvesant. By the 1800s a venue of flophouses, saloons and prostitution, it was for decades the city’s iconic Skid Row, its character starting to change with the building of high-rise condominiums in the 1990s.
A walk along the street today finds no evidence of the squalidness that earned the Bowery its old reputation.
The Chabad center on the Bowery (nyujews.com) didn’t move from its longtime, cramped, basement headquarters on the north side of Washington Square Park “because of [the new location on] the Bowery,” says Rabbi Dov Korn, co-director of the center. “We needed a bigger space. We looked at 10 places” in the vicinity of NYU. But when he came upon an available, two-story space in a new apartment building on the Bowery, a few blocks from the university, during the downturn in the housing market a few years ago, he realized the symbolism. “It’s become the new hip area in the city.”
NYU graduates and their friends are buying or renting on the Bowery or on the adjacent streets. The rabbi and his wife, Sarah, co-director of the center, moved into a converted artists’ loft around the corner from the Chabad Bowery building a few years ago.
The Korns and the Gansbourgs says they have witnessed changes in their respective neighborhoods — larger Jewish populations, improving safety statistics — since they began working in them. “We were part of the transformation, but we didn’t know it,” Sarah Korn said.
Rabbi Korn estimates that 300 Jews live in the Bowery area.
Downtown Manhattan — not limited to the NYU area — is home to the “highest” concentration of young Jews (most of them in their 20s) in the country, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, University Chaplain for NYU and Rabbi of the school’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, said during his remarks at the inauguration. It’s where “people” — specifically young, upwardly mobile, affluent people — “want to live,” said Ari Grazi, a high-tech entrepreneur who served as the inauguration’s MC.
Grazi, who is Orthodox, has lived in the area six years.
The new 7,800-square-foot Chabad center, the product of an $8 million fundraising drive ($5 million has been raised so far), contains space for classes and davening, counseling and the preparation of kosher meals.
Chabad of Harlem’s physical quarters are more modest: a first-floor community room in an apartment building on Manhattan Avenue that serves as a site for services and classes and holiday celebrations. On the same floor is a small apartment where children’s programs take place. One story up, another rented apartment, where the Gansbourgs, who live in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, stay every Shabbat and frequently during the week.
Rabbi Gansbourg’s introduction to Harlem was pure serendipity. Returning to Crown Heights from LaGuardia Airport seven years ago, he got off a bus at 125th Street, Harlem’s commercial center, looking for the No. 3 subway back to Brooklyn. He noticed a Starbucks. And a Staples. And other chain stores. This wasn’t the Harlem he thought he knew, he thought to himself.
A businessman with rabbinical ordination, “I know development,” he said in the community room after Havdalah cast week. If so many “national brands” were in Harlem, the neighborhood’s profile was changing, he reasoned. Maybe there are some Jews there.
He first offered some programs for Jewish students at City College, about a mile north. Then he arranged some parlor meetings at the homes of Jews in the area of Harlem immediately north of 110th Street, the area that residents call SoHa (Southern Harlem) but that is evolving into UWSNO (a northern extension of the Upper West Side).
“I think we ought to start a Chabad House in Harlem,” he told his wife.
“Harlem sounded like a crazy idea,” Mrs. Gansbourg said, “but Chabad does crazy things.”
Chabad of Harlem (jewishharlem.com) opened in 2007; the center uses a donated Torah scroll on Shabbat, and recently launched a $100,000 fundraising campaign to buy a newly commissioned sefer Torah that will be dedicated in a year.
Over Shabbat, the men and women — mostly in their 30s and 40s — attending worship services, many with small kids in tow, described why they moved to Harlem (initially for economic reasons: more space for the money) and why they are happy they made the decision (nice parks nearby, easy community, friendly neighbors). They said they see signs of growing Jewish life there: mezuzot on apartment doors, kosher wine in neighborhood liquor stores, kosher food and Shabbat candles for sale in neighborhood groceries, children being picked up by buses for transportation to day schools and Jewish camps, more parents taking advantage of an eruv in each neighborhood to wheel their children around on Shabbat.
“It wasn’t like this when we came,” Rabbi Gansbourg said. “It became like this.”
Following waves of emigration, Harlem’s Jewish population peaked at an estimated 150,000 in 1917. The numbers started going down after Congress passed a quota on Eastern European immigrants in 1921, and as Jews, with more affluence, moved to the Upper West Side. The numbers dropped to 5,000 by 1930 and kept dropping over the years.
Until the last decade.
“It’s surprising for most people” who haven’t followed the changeds in the neighborhood, Rabbi Gansbourg said. “It’s been safe for a long time.”
He says several hundred Jewish families now live in southern Harlem.
“There is a presence here, and it’s great for kids,” said Debbie Katz, a former television producer who moved to Harlem eight years ago. “Many of my friends — young families with kids —have moved to this neighborhood.”
Paul Rodensky, president of the Old Broadway Shul, the century-old, only other Jewish congregation in Harlem, a half-mile northwest of the Chabad center, told Chabad.org that he’s also seen an increase in congregants over the last few years.
“Although no hard figures yet exist on how many of the whites [who have moved into Harlem in recent years] are Jewish, it is clear that Jews are returning to Harlem for the same set of reasons that brought their ancestors there between 1890 and 1920,” Gurock said in an e-mail interview. Then, as now, the area “was earning a reputation for its tree-lined, wide thoroughfare streets, situated close to midtown and downtown work places.”
Another incentive for the revitalization of Harlem is Columbia University’s Manhattanville project, a development of 17 acres north of 125th Street that is expected to bring both jobs and an improved housing stock.
“I’m staying — this is my community,” said Elizabeth Stein, an attorney who moved to Harlem in the last decade.
Ari Grazi, now settled in the Bowery area and about to get married, seconds Stein’s sentiments. “I’m staying here, God willing.”