When Stuart Katz moved into North Woodmere 18 years ago, his neighbors in Long Island’s Five Towns area were mostly Jewish families with children, and a lot of them commuted to Manhattan every day from this peaceful waterfront enclave.
Fast-forward to the present: the Greater Five Towns of Long Island is more Jewish than ever, just as suburban and family-friendly — but more of a self-contained destination, with booming retail corridors and ever-expanding Jewish community institutions. “There are a lot more people working locally than there used to be,” said Katz, the president of Young Israel of North Woodmere. “I’d say it’s about 50-50 now.”
Situated at the juncture of Nassau and Queens Counties on Long Island’s South Shore, the Five Towns — cue joke here — are neither five nor towns. The historic but unofficial designation applied to Hewlett, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Woodmere and Inwood, a mix of villages and hamlets in the sprawling municipality known as the Town of Hempstead.
But in recent years, the growth of the Five Towns Orthodox Jewish community into adjoining areas has led to a new designation: the Greater Five Towns, which is widely considered to include Far Rockaway and North Woodmere, and often East Rockaway, Lynbrook and Atlantic Beach as well.
Ask local residents what else has changed, and virtually everyone has the same answer. The Orthodox Jewish presence is more prominent every year, with a total Jewish population estimated to be as high as three-quarters in some of the Five Towns, and it is a community that increasingly leans right.
Of the synagogues listed on the website of the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Five Towns, based in Cedarhurst, three are Reform, six are Conservative, one is Reconstructionist — and 16 are Orthodox, a figure that does not even take into account smaller minyanim. The Reform and Conservative presence is long established, characterized by tightly knit, multi-generational families, like the Conservative Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere. But the center of gravity is clearly tilting frum.
At the JCC, Executive Director Rina Shkolnik said the Five Towns is a place where everyone comes together. “There is a wonderful feeling of community,” said Rina Shkolnik. “Where there is respect, everyone can live together happily, and Judaism teaches respect for one another.”
Richard Hagler, executive director of the Cedarhurst-based Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, said demand is “booming” for separate-sex Jewish education, as opposed to co-ed facilities. Like many local schools, HALB — whose roughly 1,600 students are enrolled in early childhood through upper grades — offers separate high schools for girls and boys.
Local families make Torah education a priority, even in the face of recession, said Hagler. “It’s tough for many families,” he noted, explaining that his and other schools try to balance the competing demands of low class size and reasonable tuition.
The Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway (HAFTR), based in Lawrence with locations along the South Shore, has a similar academic offering for its more than 1,500 students, and an emphasis on both religious and secular studies.
Many families opt for the Brandeis School in Lawrence, which is affiliated with the Conservative Solomon Schechter movement and enrolls about 350 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
And renowned public schools — especially those in Nassau County — are, along with bucolic waterfront charm, a major draw for many of the families who settle in the area. Indeed, even as Stuart Katz prepares to make aliyah, he still sings the praises of the Five Towns. “I had someone come by to look at the house the other day,” Katz recalled. “As he left he said, ‘You know, I haven’t seen a car go by in a half an hour.’ And it’s true. North Woodmere is less crowded, very quiet — just like it always was.”
Like Inwood, once the least-Jewish of the Five Towns but increasingly popular for its more-affordable housing stock, North Woodmere has attracted more and more Jewish newcomers in recent years. Many single-family homes in North Woodmere date to the postwar era and have five or six bedrooms; ideal for large Jewish families, they sell for the mid-$500,000s and up, half what a similar house might cost in pricier Cedarhurst.
Besides affordable housing, “one of the biggest attractions is the public park,” said Katz. “It’s included in the eruv, so on Shabbat, everyone is there.” North Woodmere Park offers facilities for picnicking, a pool, ball fields, courts, playgrounds and even a gym.
The sheer variety of lifestyles available within the Five Towns is without A doubt its greatest draw, offering a near-ideal balance of suburban living and urban convenience. Far Rockaway has more of a city feel, along with a substantial — if pricey — apartment stock and a glorious stretch of Atlantic beach. Some of the region’s most elegant manses sit along the sailboat-dotted harbor in Hewlett and along leafy, manicured lanes in Cedarhurst and Lawrence, longtime destinations for upscale professionals.
Manhattan is less than an hour away on the Far Rockaway line of the Long Island Rail Road, which connects to Penn Station. The Belt, Cross Island and Southern Parkways converge in the Five Towns, connecting local Jews to sister communities and yeshivas in nearby Brooklyn and Queens.
But according to locals, leaving is optional. Indeed, it is the plethora of Jewish resources that locals most frequently laud when they talk about the Five Towns. Every day brings a flurry of classes, study groups, worship, fundraisers and Israel events, keeping residents busy without their ever having to leave Long Island.
And Jews travel from across Nassau and Brooklyn to shop in the Five Towns, with its wealth of Jewish shops and services. Central Avenue in Cedarhurst is known for its kosher bakeries, pizzerias, groceries and ethnic cafés, while Lawrence is another retail hub with institutions like Brach’s Supermarket, a full-service kosher emporium, and the Bay Harbor shopping mall. The Green Acres Mall in nearby Valley Stream has a Macy’s and other major chains.
“Really, you can find anything you are looking for right here in the Five Towns, at the JCC,” said Rina Shkolnik. “This is a community that has it all.”
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