Friday, January 22, 2010

Be It Ever So Humble, There's No Place Like Home

I have done my share of NY bashing--I admit that freely. There is much about the place that I don't like, that doesn't make me happy, that makes my blood boil. But.......I'll freely and gladly say that, given most of the rest of the city, I have been blessed to be living in Staten Island.

No, the Island is not problem free. The City of NY has long treated it as both the unloved sibling and a handy cash cow. We don't have the less expensive public transportation that the rest of the city has. What's worse, the MTA uses all the monies collected from our various bridges to support mass transit in other parts of the region rather than using the monies to build up our local system.

But as a frum Jew, I give thanks every morning that I am living on the Island. No, we are not malachim here. There are individuals who have had and have fights with other individuals--we're human beings with human foibles. But as a community we are so much a live and let live type of place. The shuls--every last one of them--work in cooperation on community issues. It matters not a whit what your hashkafa is or what label you wear--we simply don't divide ourselves into little warring enclaves. We run the gamut here from the left to the middle to the right. And no one is turning up their nose at anybody else's practices. If privately someone feels that another type of practice isn't the way to go, still, you won't hear this publicly.

This is a place where you know your neighbors, all of your neighbors. This is a place where kids on the same block go out in the street and play with each other, regardless of what school or shul they go to. This is a place where everyone, but everyone, says good Shabbos or good Yom Tov when you are walking on the street, regardless of lavush or of sex. This is a place where achdus is not just a word in the dictionary but an everyday occurrence. This is a place where when trouble strikes one of our residents we all pitch in.

And here's something else that makes me thankful to be living here. This is not a place where money is the deciding factor on your "status" in the community. Sure, there are a few people who are first out of the gate to wear the latest fashions or to buy the latest doodads. So? They don't set the tone for the community. There is very little of keeping up with the Schwartzes going on here, certainly not as a community mindset. Just for the record, there are some seriously monied people living here, the kind of money that would get these people anything they wanted relating to "kovod" in other communities. [Note: and yes,they do get kavod from us when they give tzedaka with an open hand and are active in our community organizations.] And yes, a whole slew of upper middle class incomes being made by those in the highest paying professions. And also yes, lots of people in the middle class, and a fair amount of those who haven't got a lot of money. And for the most part everyone is living in the same types of houses as everybody else does, and living the same type of life. Do those with more money than some other people in the neighborhood spend more? Spend more on what are considered luxuries? Quite probably, but who cares? People here don't pick friends based on the contents of their wallets.

I believe it was mentioned on another blog that we have Joseph Avenue, and this equates to "Winthrop Avenue" in Teaneck or back bay Lawrence. Let's put that myth to rest. Joseph Avenue has one block, and a short block at that, of over sized houses on it. Are we talking gazillionaires row here? Nope. Some of those living there are just plain comfortable--they were lucky to get the lots and build when housing did not cost what it costs now, and the lots are not mega-sized. The rest of Joseph Avenue has attached row houses and attached two-family houses on it. There's no "rich enclave" isolated in our community.

The insides of the Island houses? Whatever you want. Frankly, no one judges you on how you have decorated or on what brand names are attached to your furnishings. Someone buys or leases a luxury car? So? Someone buys a dining room set? We hope they use it for lots of simchas. Someone is taking a "fancy" vacation? We hope they enjoy it. If there is kinah in SI you'd need a super power magnifying glass and Sherlock Holmes to find it.

And have I mentioned that yeshiva tuitions here are fairly reasonable when viewed against tuitions in the rest of the city? And that the schools in our area know they are dependent on the good will of the community so they work together with the parents? And that the community supports the schools, even those members who don't have children in them?

There isn't a required simcha style here--you do what you want and what you can afford and nobody looks funny at you for doing so. Sure, there have been some megabucks simchas made by people in the community--exceptions rather than the rule that everyone "must" follow. And those making those simchas had the money to pay for them without going into serious debt. They weren't made by families giving in to community pressure to conform, since there isn't any such pressure.

You would think that a community the size of ours would have at least 1/2 dozen restaurants in residence. Wrong. Over the years some restaurants have opened and have pretty much faded away soon after. The pizza shop/dairy restaurant stays in business. There's still a small cafe type of place around after a few years. Last year a kosher Duncan Donuts opened. That's it. We aren't an every day into a restaurant type of place. If you don't feel like cooking or get stuck there are always the two butchers/take home food places for some take home food. This is a place where people, for the most part, eat at home, with their families. Women--yes, and some men as well--cook here.

To sum up, Staten Island isn't a place overloaded with the trappings of a forced, conspicuous consumerist attitude. You don't have to be anything but yourself here, and you choose that for yourself. It's a frum neighborhood where I live (there's more than one neighborhood but Willowbrook is generally what people refer to when they talk about SI) and you are free to define frum any way you want to.

So yes, there's one really great thing about NY, and I'm living there.


Kalman said...

It sounds like a nice place to live. So why does it so rarely get mentioned when people talk about nyc? Not sure I'd even know where to put it geographically in relation to the rest of the city.

Anonymous said...

My kids are convinced that Passaic is THE BEST place to live. I'm pretty satisfied too. I'm happy we feel that way, and I'm happy you feel that way about Staten Island!

TB said...

We have been looking for a sane place to live in the city (living in Bklyn right now). Never considered Staten Island before but it really sounds like a place we would be happy. How are housing prices compared to Bklyn and the rest of the city? Any suggestions for a reliable real estate person to deal with?

ProfK said...


Please send me an email at and I'll be happy to give you any info you need.

Anonymous said...

Does the "live and let live" attitude and cooperation among shuls include conservative and/or reform?

ProfK said...

There are no conservative or reform synagogues in Willowbrook. In point of fact there are few of them across the Island altogether--Orthodox shuls across the Island outnumber all other denominations.

Staten Island has something called COJO--Council of Jewish Organizations--and all the shuls and Jewish organizations are represented there. It is through COJO that kosher food distribution goes across the Island, regardless of Jewish affiliation. Is there cross socialization between the Orthodox shuls and the Conservative and Reform? Yes and no. For instance, the dinner for Israel Bonds, held in the YI, attracts people from every denomination. When elections come up and candidates are asked to come and speak, they come to the YI and all other shuls and groups are notified through COJO and people come down to hear them. In addition, the Ezras Achim based in Willowbrook and the Bikur Cholim do not discriminate when contacted by a Jewish family in need. For example, when my neighbor--not religiously Orthodox--went to sit shiva it was arranged through our Ezras Achim.

And the main center of the SI Jewish Community Center is strictly kosher and has a kosher cafe open for breakfast and lunch (under the Vaad). There are any number of speakers and programs presented by the JCC which attract Jews of all stripes.

Anonymous said...

Thank for the info. Sounds like a terrific community.

Sheryl said...

I've been to SI more then a few times and it's like you describe it. I still don't get how it got to be the way it is but it's a welcome change from the rest of the frum communities in the city.

Aviva said...

We lived in SI many years ago and would not have left but a job change for my husband would have meant an impossible commute. I still miss it. Our community now is okay but with too many of the problems that weren't there in SI. Glad to hear that it's still a great place to live.

Trudy said...

Shouldn't the question be why Staten Island has managed to be this way? What was and is different that allows the community to be this laid back and accepting? I'm not saying that your picture isn't accurate, but how did this community develop a style that you don't see in most other NY communities? How come they didn't give in to all the craziness that other communities seem to follow?