Missed Opportunities for Jewish Life in Renewed Urban Neighborhoods

What if various larger Jewish nonprofits saw their role as focused not exclusively on funding existing operations through grants, but rather in investing wholesale in communal growth and creating the facilities and infrastructure to allow that to happen?


[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Steven I. Weiss

One hundred years ago, Harlem was among the largest Jewish population centers on the planet. Some 175,000 Jews called Harlem their home, and synagogues, Jewish schools and communal organizations dotted the landscape. Several of New York’s most prominent congregations – such as Ansche Chesed and Ohab Zedek synagogues – were once located right in the heart of Harlem. Due to a range of economic and social factors in the years after World War I, however, there was a precipitous decline in the Jewish population. Jewish communal property was sold or abandoned and Harlem became the symbolic center of the nation’s African-American community.

Last summer, my wife and I moved with our young children to Harlem. We are part of a wave of Jewish families priced out of much of Manhattan who are finding Harlem to be an affordable, amiable and safe place to live. But in terms of Jewish life, there’s almost no formal presence or programming. Other than a tiny Chabad House taking up a ground floor apartment in a building on Manhattan Avenue and the historic Old Broadway Synagogue just off 125th Street near Morningside Heights, there isn’t a single Jewish communal address in the area today. While highly-engaged Jewish families make do, often by venturing out of Harlem for prayer services and other Jewish events, other families are left with little Jewish connection.

The traditional way that Jewish programming is funded doesn’t work in a location like Harlem. While the typical Federation funding model provides grants to existing Jewish organizations in varied communities, Harlem doesn’t have Jewish programs and institutions for which grants would be applicable in the first place. We’ve met Jewish families who have resided in Harlem for years but who have never had a real opportunity to engage their children Jewishly where they live.

Even though the local Federation, UJA-Federation of New York, spends $150 million a year throughout the region, it disperses these funds to organizations that already exist, which are almost entirely in better-known Jewish neighborhoods. Harlem’s Jewish families, therefore, benefit very little from the programming that such funding provides. As a result, locations like Harlem – as well as other parts of New York City such as the Lower East Side, Battery Park City, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and many more newly developing areas – need an alternative investment in Jewish growth. The few organizations that exist in these areas are Orthodox and do not meet the needs of many of the young people and families moving in.

Finding venues is a problem. In Harlem, a non-denominational, egalitarian minyan borrows space in churches and mosques. On the Lower East Side, non-Orthodox Jewish parents organize to rent out playrooms in apartment buildings for seasonal holiday events. In Battery Park City, the best anyone can hope for is the long walk to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which hosts a few events a year for young children.

In order to serve these communities, Federation can’t simply fund existing programs; it should consider procuring real estate that can incubate Jewish programming in these communities.

I’m convinced that putting even a tiny portion of UJA-Federation’s $900 million investment portfolio into real estate endowments in these communities could have had real impact on the growth potential of a community.

The lack of communal real estate is stunting this growth opportunity. Already, a great many families have lost the opportunity to connect to the Jewish community due to the failure of communal organizations to identify and accommodate Jewish families in these newly popular urban areas.

UJA-Federation doesn’t see it this way. Emily Kutner, the director of public relations for Federation, said that the purchase of real estate is not high on the organization’s agenda. It’s got to start from the bottom up, she said. “Our experience in Jewish community building has taught us that it requires a combination of indigenous bottom-up grassroots energy coupled with support and guidance from us that sparks the most likely energy to create new communities,” she said. “Often the new institutions emerge later and real estate is the outgrowth of many years of new programming, leadership development and many new services and activities.”

The need in Harlem and these other communities is too great to wait for this bottom-up approach. While waiting to do so, the cost of entry has skyrocketed. The opportunity to buy cheaply in Harlem has long passed. Real estate prices in Harlem and elsewhere have shot up immensely over the past decade; at the same time, the cost in Jewish families left without connections has grown as well. Real estate prices will in all likelihood continue to creep higher in the coming decades – as will the cost of failing to act. By the same token, investing now or at any point in the near future will perhaps provide strong financial growth, and assuredly provide strong communal growth.

A Jewish communal building in Harlem, Battery Park or Bedford-Stuyvesant could anchor Jewish life for the many young families moving in. It is an investment that will yield big dividends on both a financial and a communal level.

With their real estate costs covered by a long-term communal investment, local communities could fund the creation of programming. A diverse board could establish priorities and seek out ideas from the larger populace. These communities are already self-organizing and creating leadership structures; what they lack is a communal home in which to truly prosper.

The Toronto Model

At least one other North American city has taken steps to ensure that there is a Jewish infrastructure where the local Jewish population would like to grow. Over a 15-year period in Toronto, the Federation, working alongside residential real estate developers, made what turned out to be a huge real estate investment. The Federation raised $300 million to create a walkable Jewish village somewhat past where the Jewish community and city had expanded up to that point. According to Ted Sokolsky, the former president and CEO of UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto, until ten years ago new communities that tried to grow outside of the communal core would find that “there was not a lot of infrastructure to hold it together.” They “died off” because not enough had been invested to keep them involved. The real estate program has stemmed that outflow.

Sokolsky’s team drafted an ambitious plan, thinking that “if we built a community campus here, and people could walk to shul, walk to school, walk to the JCC, and walk to Jewish restaurants … it could recreate the experience our parents’ generation had in the old immigrant communities downtown.” Today, their Jewish campus has 70,000 Jews living around it, with a strong growth trajectory ahead. It’s also important to note that Toronto Federation played the role of real estate investor, having sold some of the raw land it had purchased at a profit.

The need for this kind of thinking goes beyond cities like New York and Toronto. All over the United States, an urbanization trend is shaking up our ideas of typical American life. People are moving back to the cities in record numbers. Communal Jewish organizations and their leadership are mostly missing this trend.

The Walkability Score

“It’s happening in cities large and small, outside of cities large and small, including the suburbs,” explains Leigh Gallagher, an associate managing editor at Fortune magazine and the author of The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving (Portfolio, 2013). In 2010 and 2011, Gallagher notes, there was a huge reversal. “The rate of growth in cities had outpaced the rate of growth in the suburbs for the first time in more than 90 years,” with “most of the growth in building activity” in “multi-family housing.” Through November 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, construction of multi-family housing had roughly doubled since 2009; single-family housing construction had barely grown at all.

“Whether it’s millennials or aging baby boomers, everyone’s emphasizing a walking environment,” Gallagher asserted. “Walkability” as a category ascribed to neighborhoods and housing is an increasingly important part of real estate listings, which now often prominently feature a property’s “walkability score.” For Gallagher, the desire for a walkable neighborhood is “human nature: it’s more interesting when you can take a stroll and be in a beautiful, interesting space, and where you can bump into other people.”

It’s an idea that’s consonant with a Jewish tradition that has emphasized gathering for prayer, study, meals and communal functions. It’s no accident that in some urban areas that have seen the decay of most traditional Jewish institutions, it is the Orthodox, and especially the ultra-Orthodox – who have forever emphasized walking on the Sabbath – who stuck it out even through the trend of suburbanization in the 20th Century.

Alongside all of the people moving to cities, companies – and, thus, jobs – are moving as well. Gallagher notes that “a lot is happening in Chicago,” where United Airlines, Archer Daniels Midland and Hillshire Brands have all moved their headquarters from the suburbs back to the urban environs. Even gathering spaces like sports stadiums are moving to the city: the Nets are now playing at Barclays Center, where biking and taking public transit to events is emphasized over driving. Gallagher notes an informal study found that of “23 recent ballparks built since the mid-’90s, all but one or two of them were built in the downtown.”

Overall, “there’s this tremendous transfer of wealth out of the exurbs and suburbs, and into urban areas,” Gallagher says.

Behind the Times

Except in the Jewish world. For many familiar with the glacial pace of change in the Jewish community, it’s perhaps no surprise that Jewish organizations are many years behind a popular trend that has seen major developments across both residential and commercial investment. But this lag serves to highlight the plight of Jews who have lost the opportunity to generate a sense of Jewish engagement for their young children.

An enterprising young rabbi in Chicago perfectly illustrates this problem. One recent day, I was talking with Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann as she was zipping around downtown Chicago on roller blades. She is a mobile Jewish community organizer with a mission: gathering mostly young Jewish adults for programming and prayer services in the denser parts of the city that haven’t seen Jewish development for decades. She is intent on reaching young people who, in line with the nationwide trend, are moving to urban centers. The 33-year-old Heydemann’s efforts are directed through an organization she founded called Mishkan Chicago, named after the tabernacle that the wandering Hebrews used for prayers in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert.

And wander the young Jews of Chicago do, as the homes they claim in denser parts of the city – prized by younger folk for their walkability and access to urban life – have little if any access to existing Jewish institutions. What synagogues and other establishments of Jewish life exist in those places for these young Jews to gather, build community, pray or teach their children? “For the most part, there are none,” Heydemann notes.

Atlanta, America’s capital of exurban sprawl, is another great example. Eliana Leader is Executive Director of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, the suburban synagogue she attended as a child. But she doesn’t want to live there. Instead, she and her husband chose Virginia Highland, an old urban core originally developed in the early 1900s.

Leader says she and her husband knew in moving there that they’d be making a choice between access to Jewish resources and “whether we were going to live in a place that we wanted to live in, in terms of city life – in terms of walkability.” In nearby Midtown, “there used to be a JCC that was an active place when I was a kid in the ‘80s,” but in that decade, “they gave up the building, sold it and decided to invest in a neighborhood farther north, really in the suburbs.” As a result, the de facto Jewish community of young urbanites moving “in-town” (what Atlantans call their denser urban core) has “put together more independent, chavura-type groups” that have no Jewish-owned building in which to meet. Instead, they’re taking advantage of what the city more broadly has to offer, with minyanim taking place in parks.

What Can Be Done?

What if various larger Jewish nonprofits saw their role as focused not exclusively on funding existing operations through grants, but rather in investing wholesale in communal growth and creating the facilities and infrastructure to allow that to happen?

Communal organizations could diversify their endowments by investing in real estate that would not only add value to their portfolios but could be directly used for the enhancement of Jewish communal life.

As Jews move to urban areas, the Jewish community isn’t meeting the demand for Jewish life there. And while grants for the operation of Jewish activities are helpful, the overall sentiment that many urban Jews feel as they invest their futures in denser areas is that Jewish communal institutions are not willing to invest alongside them.

It’s a problem for these burgeoning Jewish communities that will only get worse as real estate prices have skyrocketed over the past decade. In places like Harlem, East Rogers Park and Virginia Highland, the real opportunity to purchase cheaply occurred a decade ago. But those prices will be higher still in a decade or two, and the need will be even more urgent.

Realizing that these urban Jews need communal space, just as they lust after more closet space for their wardrobes, is what can transform today’s Jewish organizations into the angel investors in the Jewish life of tomorrow. Jews will continue to move to these areas; the only question is whether the traditional markers of Jewish life will be there to welcome them and help sustain their Jewish lives.

Steven I. Weiss is an award-winning investigative journalist, and is news anchor and managing editor at The Jewish Channel. He has published in Harp- er’s, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and many more.