Behind the Headlines Number of Aged and Abandoned Jews in Brooklyn Grows As More Neighborhoods Decay
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Behind the Headlines Number of Aged and Abandoned Jews in Brooklyn Grows As More Neighborhoods Decay

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The number of aged and abandoned Jews in Brooklyn’s decayed and decaying neighborhoods continues to grow as resources to relocate them to safer sections shrink, according to Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council in that borough.

Rosenfeld told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that his September, 1981 estimate of several thousand such abandoned Jews, living in squalor and fear in Brooklyn’s Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and East Flatbush sections, had been expanded by a variety of factors.

He said there was no way of knowing how many such enfeebled elderly Jews are now trapped in the decayed hulks of buildings in such sections of Brooklyn. But Rosenfeld said, partly because of the recession and for related reasons, decaying sections are growing and so is the total of beleaguered Jews. He told the JTA that the number of Jews who once had funds to help the Community Council also was shrinking, in part because of the impact of the recession.


Rosenfeld said most of the forgotten Jews were widows but that there were also widowers and some elderly couples. He said the elderly Jews do all of their shopping, banking, medical visits and socializing — to the extent that their physical conditions permit — before 2 p.m., when they lock themselves in their miserable apartments for the night.

At that hour, Rosenfeld explained, the neighborhood children finish their attendance at the public schools and the elderly Jews are deeply fearful of being out of doors after that hour. He said they have been taunted, beaten and robbed by the children.

Historically, as the neighborhoods fall into decay and their Jews fled, the last to leave were the Orthodox Jews, who needed such institutions as synagogues within walking distance of their homes, yeshivas, mikvehs, and kosher butchers and food shops. They left reluctantly, but they left.

The Jews who remained either did not want to leave neighborhoods — no matter how dangerous they had become — in which they had lived most of their lives, or could not, though all vestiges of Jewish life and institutions had long since disappeared.


Rosenfeld said that, in June, 1977, the Community Council received a $95,000 demonstration grant from the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) for a full-scale service and relocation project for the elderly in the Brownsville, East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant sections.

The project, started in September, 1977, enabled the Community Council staff to find and serve more than 300 elderly Jewish residents and to relocate 53 of them to safer areas. Since the grant was for a demonstration project, the fact that HEW officials praised it as an outstanding performance did not affect the rule that, as a demonstration, the project could not get additional HEW funds.

Rosenfeld said the Community Council tried to follow the advice of federal officials to seek local funding to continue a clearly successful program and turned to New York City officials. But New York was then having its own financial crunch and could not help.

Meanwhile, earlier in 1977, the Community Council received a six-month $5,000 grant from the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York for a similar project to find, provide services for and relocate Jewish elderly in the Brooklyn slum areas Rabbi Rosenfeld said that success in that modest project led to a renewal of the Federation grant, again at $5,000 for another six months, and two additional renewals in 1978 and 1979 at an annual $12,000 funding level.

While funds were available, he said, the Community Council relocated about 10 elderly Jews each year. Since October 1978, he said, service and relocation efforts have been funded by small grants obtained by the Community Council from “any source we can find.” Currently, Rabbi Rosenfeld told the JTA, the Community Council is relocating two to three elderly Jews about every two months. But hundreds, perhaps thousands, need to be helped to safe neighborhoods, he stressed.

Rosenfeld said that there was no way of knowing, or even estimating, how many such elderly and abandoned Jews are living in isolation in the areas the Community Council seeks to serve.


A major problem is the disparity in rents between the battered apartments in which the relocated Jews had lived and the rents commanded by suitable apartments in safer neighborhoods. Community Council staff members routinely apply for federal Section 8 rent subsidies for the elderly Jews they manage to relocate.

The bureaucratic routine of clearance for such payments can take as long as a year, Rabbi Rosenfeld declared, and meanwhile, the Community Council somehow finds funds to make up the difference. At the same time, the standards for eligibility of the poor for Section 8 subsidies are being tightened as part of the Reagan Administration budget cuts.

The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, an affiliate of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish poverty, has two offices and a senior citizens center. A staff of 12 carries out the Community Council’s varied programs.

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