Brooklyn’s Newest Jews


On a recent Wednesday, an ethnically diverse crew of campers returned from a morning swim and clattered downstairs for their daily Israeli dance party.

There, Gilad Kalifa, a kinetic 23-year-old from Beersheva, led them in a rousing round of disco capped with a call-and-response session of “B’teyavon,” Hebrew for “Bon Appetit!” that segued neatly into lunch. (See the Jewish Week’s website for footage.)

The camp, a Windsor Terrace satellite of the full-service Kings Bay Y in South Brooklyn, is the biggest of several new Jewish institutions sprouting in unlikely Brooklyn neighborhoods. Young liberal Jewish families, most of them priced out of the brownstone belt, are moving across and along Prospect Park to where the architecture and the home prices are generally less grand. In the process, they’re complicating the community’s collective mental map of the borough, long characterized by right-wing Orthodox in neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Borough Park; the wealthy and liberal in Park Slope and other brownstone enclaves, and Russians in southern sections like Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay.

Leonard Petlakh, the executive director of Sheepshead Bay’s Kings Bay Y, decided to branch out to Prospect Avenue near the Fort Hamilton subway stop after an analysis of census, real estate and New York City schools data revealed that Brooklyn’s fastest-growing non-Orthodox Jewish population was moving to an area encompassing Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park and Kensington.

“There’s a desire for, and growth, in Jewish life in Brooklyn and it takes on all different forms,” said Amy Glosser, chair of the board of trustees at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School, a nondenominational Jewish day school that is in the heart of Carroll Gardens but draws an increasing percentage of its students from beyond Brownstone Brooklyn. “And they’re all linked. It’s not either-or. It’s diverse, very much like Brooklyn is diverse. And it’s hipster. It’s young, it’s creative.”

In neighborhoods like Windsor Terrace and Kensington, where wood-frame and row houses predominate, and as far south as leafy Midwood, Brooklyn Jews ranging from unaffiliated to Modern Orthodox are creating new institutions — a Jewish community center, a supper club, a minyan — and supporting established ones, like schools and shuls.

One of the best things about the borough is its eclectic sensibility, say newcomers and veterans alike. It forces them to think hard about how to be true to their sense of Jewish mission while embracing Brooklyn’s diversity.

A few pieces in the borough’s increasingly intricate Jewish mosaic:

♦ The Hester, a kosher supper club in Ditmas Park, draws about 75 paying guests every month to a gourmet dinner party and concert.

♦ Enrollment is up at Hannah Senesh, at the Conservative movement’s East Midwood Hebrew Day School and at the Luria Academy, an Orthodox Montessori School that serves a diverse group of students.

♦ Modern Orthodox rabbi and musician Greg Wall is planning a series of Shabbat services in Ditmas Park after the High Holy Days to explore the possibility of starting a congregation there.

♦ Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr in Ditmas Park, a Reform congregation of about 100 families, saw 16 new families join last year.

♦ A young Midwood family is hosting a monthly Friday night service at their home called “The Potluck Minyan.”

“Young Jewish families who are looking to raise their kids in the city are moving here,” the Kings Bay Y’s Petlakh said. “It’s more affordable than Park Slope. In many cases, families like it better. You can find a parking spot. It’s family-oriented, and it’s always been family-oriented.”

According to Petlakh’s numbers, of the 110,000 people living in the area, almost 8 percent were identified as Jewish, and the number of Jewish families buying homes increased substantially even between 2009 and 2010.

Of course, these Jewish demographics reflect a broader trend of families raising children in the city instead of moving to the suburbs. In 2010, almost 22 percent of New York City’s population was under age 18, just slightly under the percentage for the state as a whole, according to United States census data.

Coming up on its first anniversary in September, the King’s Bay Y at Windsor Terrace is an airy, four-room storefront shop that has served more than 800 families. Its offerings focus on children up to age 12, including an after-school program, a summer camp, an open play space and classes that range from Chinese to chess.

Petlakh and his team knew from their research that many of the new families they were targeting felt little connection to traditional Jewish institutions like synagogues. They aimed to create in the Y a “neutral entry point” where interfaith families and those from other religious traditions altogether would feel welcome.

“I happen to be Jewish, but that’s just a coincidence,” said Tim Dubnau, whose wife is Catholic, and whose 5-year-old daughter attends the Y’s after-school program and its summer camp. “I like the fact that it’s diverse, and it doesn’t seem religious to me. I’d be turned off by any organization that was overtly religious.”

The Y didn’t ramp up its explicitly Jewish offerings, such as Tot Shabbat and Purim parties, until it had gained the trust of families like Dubnau’s.

Just as some of the Y’s clients don’t use — but aren’t bothered by — its Jewish programming, so the varied crowd of diners that patronizes the Hester, a Ditmas Park supper club, might not notice that it hews closely to Jewish tradition.

It observes the laws of kol isha, which means it does not allow female vocalists at the concerts that accompany its monthly events. Founder Itta Werdiger Roth adheres to stringent standards of kashrut: in the meals, which cost about $30 per person depending on what’s served, the grain and dairy products are prepared with the participation or supervision of an observant Jew.

“A few locals come who may not even be Jewish,” said Roth, a Lubavitcher from Australia who’s a freelance personal chef. “Ditmas Park is the most multicultural neighborhood I’ve ever set foot in. We get people from everywhere at the Hester. We get couples on dates and friends meeting up. It’s even multigenerational.”

In Midwood, the “Potluck Minyan” is “partnership”-style which means it conforms to Orthodox tradition while still allowing women to lead parts of the service, said organizer Rori Neiss. She started the monthly Friday-night prayer service, followed by a potluck meal, in 2008 in her home with husband Russel Neiss, one of the Jewish educators behind PocketTorah, a mobile app that enables users to read and hear every Torah and Haftarah portion from Android or Apple devices.

The Potluck Minyan used to struggle to find enough people, but now draws 30 with little effort. Most participants are Modern Orthodox, but not all, and while the minyan’s core hails from the neighborhood, some attendees will walk from Ditmas Park and Sheepshead Bay.

“This isn’t the coolest part of Brooklyn, but there are things happening here that couldn’t happen anywhere else,” Rori Neiss said.

Likewise in Midwood, the Conservative East Midwood Jewish Center is finding success by tweaking tradition, said Audrey Korelstein, its director of youth and family education.

As many as 90 people attend its monthly Tot Shabbat program, which owes much of its popularity to its embrace of instrumental music, traditionally not allowed on Shabbat. They had to “break some rules,” Korelstein said, but it’s been worth it to start building a more robust constituency for the shul, which is located in an Orthodox neighborhood and is targeting the newcomers in the Windsor Terrace/Ditmas Park area.

“Brooklyn is great,” said Korelstein. “There are a lot of forms of Jewish expression here. There are a lot of tents, and they’re really big tents. I wish we weren’t the furthest south of the group … but it’s exciting.”; @thesimplechild