Rising To New Heights


A professor of geography, Enid Lotstein became interested in some new territory last year — in Manhattan.

After renting in Harlem for seven years, Lotstein, who lives with her teenage daughter, decided it was time to buy. They investigated a few neighborhoods: familiar Harlem, Hudson Heights in the western section of Washington Heights and Inwood, the northernmost part of the borough, just above Washington Heights.

In a few weeks they’ll move into their new, two-bedroom apartment in Inwood.

“It was an economic decision,” says Lotstein. In Inwood, she says, you can buy an apartment for about the same as it costs to rent in trendier areas like the Upper West Side. And it was a commuting decision: she needs to be near her college campus in the West Bronx and her daughter near her high school in Manhattan. “It was important to stay in Manhattan.”

The Lotsteins aren’t alone.

In recent years a growing number of Jews have moved to Inwood and to nearby Washington Heights, fueling a Jewish revival that began about a decade ago, and has accelerated over the last few years. Like Lotstein, many of the newcomers to the two neighborhoods came primarily for economic reasons, but often became active in extant or newly formed Jewish organizations. Like Lotstein, many came from areas further south in Manhattan, where they were priced out. Like Lotstein, they are turning Inwood and Washington Heights into one of the hottest Jewish housing markets of the decade.

“It has become a destination for young people,” particularly singles, hoping to meet spouses, says Rabbi Mordecai Schnaidman, emeritus spiritual leader of the Mount Sinai Jewish Center.

Two recent signs of this Jewish renaissance are the formation of Inwood Jews (inwoodjews.com), an unaffiliated educational outreach organization founded by a Chabad-oriented and Yeshiva University-ordained activist, and the appointment of a new, outreach-focused rabbi at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center.

And UJA-Federation of New York recently announced that it will make grants available later this year to programs in the two neighborhoods that are geared to families with young children. “We look at this as an area that has potential for growth,” says Hana Gruenberg, planning director for UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.

Residents and Jewish leaders there tell of burgeoning demand for playgroups, nursery school programs, day care and after-school programs. They tell of parks crowded with young Jewish families on Shabbat afternoons, of Jewish residents moving into apartments on the far west side of Broadway. The YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood recently hired an additional full-time youth worker.

Washington Heights and Inwood, two separate neighborhoods that many people consider a single unit, are largely working-class, middle-class areas of apartment buildings and some private homes, largely Dominican, with residents from other ethnic backgrounds settling there in recent years. The Heights has two Jewish areas: on the east, the blocks surrounding the Centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University, and on the west, where the Y stands. The two areas (the bulk of the shuls are on the east side) are separated by what residents call “The Valley,” the low-lying section dominated by Broadway’s strip of bodegas and ethnic restaurants.

Both sides have experienced a Jewish revival.

Zalman Alpert, a reference librarian at YU who has lived in Washington Heights since 1988, says a younger cadre of Jewish residents has replaced the older ones who died or moved away from both sides of the valley.

Residents and Jewish leaders there share stories of the two neighborhoods’ reputation spreading as far as Israel, a reputation that statistics bear out.

According to UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, which was released last year, the Washington Heights-Inwood area experienced “an exponential increase in both the number of Jewish households as well as the number of people in Jewish households” since the philanthropy’s previous study in 2002.

“Washington Heights/Inwood has experienced the fourth-largest absolute population increase (12,600) and the largest proportional increase in its Jewish population — growing 144% since 2002,” the recent study stated. The UJA-Federation study estimated the neighborhoods’ Jewish population at 23,700, up from 9,700 in 2002.

“It’s already an old number,” says Martin Englisher, longtime executive vice president of the Y. He says the current figure now approaches 26,000. “Every day I get calls about people moving in.” Among the newcomers are some Israeli and Soviet emigrés, and a growing number of people in the LGBT community.

Inwood’s Jewish population, possibly as high as 10,000 a half-century ago, declined to about 1,000 about 20 years ago, and is back up to 2,000, maybe higher, observers there say.

For a long time, Washington Heights had the reputation as a place where young couples moved when the first got married, but left when they started raising families. Today, says Anat Coleman, director of community affairs at the Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood, “more people are staying than ever before.”

Both Washington Heights, home for decades to both YU and thousands of German refugees from the Third Reich, and Inwood, which attracted Jews of various affiliations, went through a wave of large-scale Jewish flight starting in the 1960s; many synagogues and Jewish businesses closed down.

The current revival began, residents say, because the results of mayoral crime-reduction policies became evident (street crimes, according to NYPD statistics decreased by 80 or 90 percent), and because an eruv went up in 2006 on the east side, bringing in young families attracted by the possibility of wheeling their children to shul in strollers on Shabbat.

Today, many of the new residents of Washington Heights and Inwood are young single or young families, many of them religiously observant. “The proportion of people ages 18 to 39 in Washington Heights/Inwood (40%) is substantially higher than in Manhattan overall (20%),” the recent UJA-Federation demographic study stated.

Unlike many local neighborhoods and communities that have engaged in concerted efforts to attract Jewish residents, often offering financial incentives and stressing their Jewish resources, there is no similar Washington Heights-Inwood campaign. It’s all word of mouth — and of course, the Internet and social media. Congregations there did not proactively offer programs of interest to the young cohort, but older synagogue leaders quickly adapted, several observers say.

“Community is not only about existing and strong organizations” — it’s about new ones, and old ones that react to demographic changes, says UJA-Federation’s Gruenberg.

The Jewish revival’s most noticeable effect is at the Y, where new family-oriented programs have begun, and at the Mount Sinai Jewish Center and the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, where membership is growing.

A caveat: smaller congregations have not benefited from the revival, and there’s still no kosher butcher, Judaica store — and a single kosher bakery, Gideon’s — in the area.

While supermarkets offer a full range of kosher items, and liquor stores offer a modest selection of kosher wines, the neighborhoods’ only kosher restaurants are across The Valley on the YU side. That has not been a deterrent, says David Libchaber, a native of France who has lived in Washington Heights 11 years.

“Aside from eating out, you can definitely lead a Jewish life,” says Libchaber, who was leader of a group of parents who began leading children’s services at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center seven years ago and now serves as the congregation’s president.

Rabbi Guy Austrian, who was recently ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and in January became spiritual leader of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, an unaffiliated “traditional halachic egalitarian shul,” meets congregants for counseling or informal education in such venues as nearby parks and cafes, conducts a “Sunday Shmooze” in his apartment.

Upcoming member-driven plans at the synagogue, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, include an adult education series on Jewish prayer, and a social justice program.

At the Mount Sinai Jewish Center, which is Modern Orthodox, veteran leaders of the congregation have appointed new members to positions of synagogue leadership, Rabbi Schnaidman says. “They are in control of the shul and its destiny.”

When the young members began showing up in large numbers for Shabbat services and conducting their own minyan in a smaller room, Rabbi Schnaidman says, the veteran members moved the new minyan to the main sanctuary. Now, he says, the newcomers “are the minyan.”

And Enid Lotstein, who will be an Inwood resident soon, says she plans to participate in many activities of the new Inwood Jews group.

Lotstein, who keeps a kosher home and calls her Jewish orientation “Renewal … Conservative,” calls the availability of Jewish life there “a fringe benefit.”

Financial considerations brought her and her daughter to northern Manhattan, she stresses, but the opportunity to keep active in Jewish life is “a nice benefit.”