Orthodox Influx Remaking Marine Park


When Shalom Gurgov began looking to buy a house 18 months ago, he had hoped to find something close to where he was renting in Borough Park, or perhaps a place in Kensington, where his parents live. But he saw quickly that staying in either neighborhood wasn’t in the cards.

“The prices were too high, or if the price was right, the condition was bad,” he said. The 32-year-old computer programmer and father of four eventually found himself looking in Marine Park, the South Brooklyn neighborhood named for the adjacent 530-acre wildlife preserve and city park that has a golf course, cricket fields, playgrounds and sports fields.

“I noticed there were a lot of young families. We felt like we would fit right in,” he said. In October he and his family moved to a house on Avenue P and East 36th Street, and he hasn’t looked back. “There are playgrounds for the kids. Marine Park itself is close by. It’s pretty quiet. It’s like the suburbs of Brooklyn,” he said.

Gurgov is not alone. In recent years, hundreds of Orthodox families have moved to Marine Park, looking for affordable housing that is walking distance from their families living in Midwood and Flatbush and the kosher amenities offered there. Between the late 1990s and today, the number of Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood shot up from two to 16, and a second Jewish Community Council of Marine Park building opened in January.

The approximately 1-mile square neighborhood is just west of Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, roughly bordered by Kings Highway to the north, Flatbush Avenue to the east, Avenue U to the south and Nostrand and Gerritsen avenues to the West. It’s long been populated by Irish and Italian civil servants — policemen, firemen and sanitation workers. Twenty or 30 years ago it also had a “substantial Jewish community,” said Marine Park Councilman Alan Maisel, but that generation died off, and membership at the neighborhood’s sole synagogue, Marine Park Jewish Center, dwindled.

Then, in the late 1990s young Jewish families began considering the neighborhood as prices in areas like Borough Park and Midwood soared. In an indication of the changing demographics of the neighborhood, Marine Park Jewish Center, established as a Conservative synagogue in 1951, became an Orthodox congregation, Merkaz Yisrael of Marine Park, in the late 1980s.

“Somewhere around 15 or 17 years ago, I put my very first Orthodox couple in Marine Park; there wasn’t even one [Orthodox] synagogue. … I was thinking: Are they crazy? Where are they going to go to shul?” said Lisa Lilker Reich, associate broker at Madison Estates, a Marine Park-area real estate firm.

At the time, there were very few Orthodox synagogues in the area. “Now it’s completely young frum couples, the streets are filled with baby carriages,” she said.

Reich said she was surprised at “how fast and furious” the influx of Orthodox families was. “There was a five-year period when it went crazy,” she said.

The growth of the Orthodox community in Marine Park reflects a borough-wide boom in Orthodox communities. In 2002, 37 percent of Brooklyn Jews, or 168,720 people were Orthodox. In 2011, 41 percent of Brooklyn Jews, or 230,051, were Orthodox, according to the UJA Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Studies in 2002 and 2011.

Particularly notable is the explosion of growth of the number of chasidic and black-hat Jews in the Borough. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of charedi Jews living in Borough Park rose by 71 percent and the number in Williamsburg rose by 41 percent, according to the UJA Federation of New York report.

Marine Park is one of several Brooklyn neighborhoods seeing spillover from bursting-at-the-seams Orthodox areas. Bedford Stuyvesant and South Williamsburg have increasingly become home to Satmar Jews spilling over from Williamsburg, and Kensington has been getting Orthodox Jews from Borough Park.

In Marine Park, most of the spillover comes from Midwood, where a three-bedroom home can sell for $900,000, and most of the houses are much larger, in the five- and six-bedroom range, and sell for $1.5 or $1.6 million. In Marine Park, the houses are smaller, and it’s still possible to get a three-bedroom house for around $450,000.

“The prices are affordable,” said Reich.

“It’s unbelievable, the growth of the Jewish community in the past 10 years or so,” said Rabbi Baruch Pesach Mendelson of Kehilah Marine Park, which was founded in 2005 and was one of the first of the new wave of Orthodox shuls to open in the neighborhood.

“Every six months or so, another rabbi opens another synagogue,” Rabbi Mendelson said. Currently the neighborhood has about 16 Orthodox synagogues.

Kehilah Marine Park has a membership of between 40 and 50, which is the norm in the area, said Rabbi Mendelson.

“I think in our neighborhood people are used to small synagogues,” he said. “Everybody finds their own little corner and camps there and hopefully enjoys it. If they don’t enjoy the experience, they walk two blocks over to the next one.”

Some, however, are larger, such as Marine Park Jewish Center, which has 120 families, said its rabbi, Rabbi Elisha Weiss.

Today there are about 1,000 Jewish families in Marine Park, but despite the influx, the neighborhood doesn’t have a kosher supermarket or many kosher restaurants. Most Orthodox residents drive over to Midwood to do their shopping. They are already used to buying their food there, and the stores are less expensive than kosher stores that have attempted to make a go of it in Marine Park, said Rabbi Mendelson.

“The location gives it a feel of being slightly outside of the hubbub of Brooklyn Orthodox life, but at the same time it’s close enough that you have all the conveniences. … People live close enough to walk to their parents and in-laws,” he said.

One institution that has flourished in Marine Park is the Jewish Community Council of Marine Park. It was started in 2008 by Shea Rubenstein, Shua Gelbstein, Yossi Sharf and Jeff Leb, who all lived in the area at the time, to provide social services, legal assistance, computer classes, food assistance, a Sunday girls program and other programs for Jews in the area. The main site on Flatbush Avenue and Avenue P, was joined in January by a second location that includes a large social hall and room for additional social service providers on Quenton Road and East 35th Street.

The JCC’s flagship program is Project Machel, which provides subsidies to families that aren’t able to qualify for food stamps but that need help with the expense of buying kosher food. Instead of a traditional food pantry, the program gives families a $50 credit at a local store.

“When a person loses their job there is a huge shame factor,” said Rubenstein, JCC of Marine Park's executive vice president. “They don’t want to go to a food pantry to pick up food they do not need. So instead they … can essentially walk into the store and purchase anything they need."

The program, said Leb, “really took off” and today distributes $90,000 per year to families in need. “We had government funding, but a lot of the funding was grassroots. It really gave people a good feeling to know that they were helping people around the corner,” he said.

“It’s a very warm, comfortable neighborhood,” said Reeves Eisen, Councilman Maisel’s chief of staff.

“I think it really provides a nice place for people to raise their families,” said Rabbi Mendelson. “It has a strongly religious atmosphere; you can feel it in the streets.”

Most in the Orthodox community are yeshivish, and about 20 to 25 percent are Modern Orthodox, said Rubenstein. The rest, he said, are unaffiliated.

But despite the diversity of affiliation and disparate shul membership, community leaders describe the neighborhood as unified.

“I think the amazing quality about it is that it’s a very nonjudgmental community,” said Leb. In other Orthodox communities, he said, people tend to cluster together based on religious affiliation. But, he said, “Marine Park really is a melting pot … no judgments.”

Corrections: The article was corrected on May 4, 2015 to show that there were at least two Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood before the Orthodox influx in the late 1990s. It was also updated to show that Marine Park Jewish Center became an Orthodox congregation in the late 1980s and has a membership of 120 families, much larger than the average the article described.