N.Y.'s unique 'Jewish reality'

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - A century after New York City's Jewish population thronged the airless streets of the Lower East Side, America's largest Jewish community is returning to its past.

In recent decades, many of the descendants of the desperately poor immigrants who once made that Manhattan neighborhood the densest concentration of humanity in America have become one of the most successful segments of America's ethnic alloy, becoming ensconced in the ranks of the middle and upper classes.


But a new survey of a community that has put an indelible stamp on this city's cuisine and language has found that being Jewish in New York is more likely these days to mean being strikingly different from Jews in the rest of the country - more likely to be Orthodox, more likely to be married to another Jew and, in a return to the patterns of the past, more likely to be a poor immigrant.

"In the great debate that goes on about whether New York is different from or like the rest of America, at least in terms of the Jewish population, New York is different," says population researcher Jacob Ukeles, who conducted the survey for the UJA-Federation of New York, the city's leading Jewish charitable agency.


Sheer numbers help make New York's Jews unique in America. The population study, which is done roughly once a decade, found that the city's Jewish population fell about 5 percent in the 1990s, dropping to 972,000 - the first time in a century that New York City has been home to fewer than 1 million Jews. But, with the suburbs gaining the residents lost by the city, the metropolitan area's Jewish numbers held steady at 1.4 million.

That means more than a quarter of America's estimated 5.2 million Jews live in the New York area.

"New York's the starting point for most American Jews today," says Jeffrey Gurock, who teaches American Jewish history at New York's Yeshiva University. "Most every Jew in America can trace an ancestor who had some experience with the New York Jewish community."

The second-largest Jewish community in America, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, has about 600,000 Jews. The six-county Chicago metropolitan area ranks third, with 270,500, according to a 2000-2001 survey by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago.

But in addition to their numbers, the Jews of New York have other unique features, including the largest Orthodox population in America, nearly 270,000 people. And the more than 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews make up the largest concentration of Jewish immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

"Outside of the land of Israel, New York is one of the few places in the world where you can feel your Jewishness, not just internally but externally," says Meir Fund, rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. "You can walk through whole neighborhoods and see Jewish people, hear people speaking Jewish languages. It's a unique opportunity for someone to experience a Jewish reality."

Elsewhere, high rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews have raised concerns about the future of the faith; a 1990 national study found that 52 percent of Jews married in the previous five years had married outside their religion.

But in the New York area, only 13 percent of Jews had a non-Jewish spouse, a fact that Ukeles attributes to the high premium that Orthodox Jews place upon marrying within the religion and to the bigger pool of Jewish singles in the area.


Return of poverty

Perhaps the most surprising finding was that the poverty rate among New York Jews doubled in the 1990s, from 10 percent when the last survey was conducted in 1991 to 21 percent in the newest study, which was released in June.

"We have been saying for a number of years now that Jewish poverty is not an oxymoron," says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which distributes food and provides housing for about 70,000 people annually. "Many people in the Jewish community used to say that the Jewish community didn't have the same problems as other communities. Now it's clear we do."

Starting with 23 Spanish and Portuguese Jews who founded North America's first synagogue here in 1654, the city's Jewish population swelled in the 20th century until it reached an estimated 2 million in the 1950s.

After World War II, suburbanization and the lure of the Sun Belt drained nearly half the Jewish population from the city, similar to the experiences of other key New York immigrant groups.

Russian immigrants


Brooklyn's Brighton Beach neighborhood, which has a boardwalk on the Atlantic Ocean, has become such a stronghold of the city's former Soviet Jews that it has been dubbed "Little Odessa," after the Ukrainian seaport on the Black Sea.

Much of the increase in the Jewish poverty rate can be traced to this neighborhood, the first stop for new arrivals from the former Soviet Union.

Instead of young or middle-age Jews making the move to America, a higher proportion of recent immigrants are elderly Russians who are following sons or daughters but who have little money and almost no job prospects.

That was the case with Boris and Leya Zhornitskiy, who moved to the United States seven years ago, when he was 72 and she was 73. The couple, whose two sons had established careers in New York, brought only their clothes, some kitchen utensils and a few personal mementos, including several photo albums showing a young Boris Zhornitskiy in a Red Army uniform during World War II.

"In Russia, if I wanted to make some career move, I was reminded I was a Jew," says the husband, an electrical engineer who rose to the rank of colonel in the Soviet army before retiring. "For 70 years, I didn't know how to be a Jew. I couldn't show I was Jewish."

Here, they are poor. Their family helps out, but Leya Zhornitskiy has Alzheimer's disease. Now, Medicare pays for a Russian-speaking nurse who helps Boris Zhornitskiy care for his wife, and $200 a month in food stamps covers most of the couple's food bills. But the $783 monthly rent on their small apartment eats up most of their Social Security checks.


Like the large Russian community, the city's large Orthodox population is a fairly recent development.

"A hundred years ago, it was understood that America was a difficult place in terms of maintaining one's Jewish identity," says Gurock, the Yeshiva historian. "Many of the most Orthodox Jews didn't come until the Europe they knew was destroyed by the Nazis."

City attracts Orthodox

Now, a sizable Orthodox community makes New York an appealing destination for other Orthodox Jews because the network of kosher shops, ritual baths, Jewish bookshops and schools makes the practice of their faith easier. In the Orthodox enclave of Williamsburg, an air-raid siren sounds on Friday evening to signal the approach of sunset, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.

Shira Sears, 53, a special-education teacher, and her husband moved to Brooklyn about 15 years ago to make sure their children received the best Jewish education available. Previously they lived in New England, where they found themselves driving to Boston twice a month to do their shopping at kosher shops.

"Here, you can get everything on every corner," she says. "And there are good companions for your children to play with. You don't have to worry about them hanging out on a street corner with someone you don't want them to hang out with, and if they do, they'll be seen, because everyone knows everyone."


The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.