Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tales of the Wandering Jews

There seems to be a belief prevalent in frum society that, once established, communities and institutions will go on forever in precisely the form and format that they exist in at conception. Well, history does not support this conclusion. There have been communities all over the NYC metropolitan area that many years ago were solid pockets of frumkeit, of one kind or another. Today those areas either do not exist as frum communities or their character has changed radically or they are hanging on by a thread. Here and there you find communities that have only sprung up recently, in areas that never had a frum presence before. Also here and there you have a few communities that were seemingly heading for extinction but that somehow found a way to invigorate themselves. There are many reasons for why these communities wax and wane.

In pre-war Europe most people never left the area where they were born and raised. There were no expectations of the "Go West Young Man" variety. An occasional yeshiva bochur (and there weren't quite as many of those as we have been lead to believe) might choose to settle in the area where his yeshiva was. If there was an imbalance of available men and women for shidduchim the women might marry out of their home community, although usually not all that far away from it. It was fairly unusual to have more than three generations living at the same time, and even many of that first generation were not alive throughout the lifetime of the following two generations. As one generation passed on the next generations moved into their living quarters. Yes, there was some expansion in some places, but nowhere near what we would call rampant growth. In many, many cases you would find more than one generation living together under one roof. Marriage did not necessarily mean that you left home and moved into your own place.

Now fast forward to the US. When Jews began arriving to the US they did not all gravitate to exactly the same point on the map. Depending on their point of entry, many would find themselves in the NYC area and many did not. It is not just an accident that the oldest shul in the US in continuous use since its inception is located in Charleston, South Carolina. The Jews went everywhere they could find a place to live.

The Lower East Side of Manhattan was a prime target for many immigrants. For one thing, the tenement housing available was all they could afford, and sometimes even there multiple family groups shared one apartment because money was tight. There was also the sense of community found in this area. Kosher shopping was there, shuls were there, mikvaot were there and eventually yeshivas and schools were there. German immigrants moved to Washington Heights and established a home community there.

Eventually many of the immigrants began migrating to other parts of the city. There were once frum communities in Red Hook and Brownsville, Brooklyn, communities that don't exist today. Canarsie was once a bustling frum area--not so today. Crown Heights also became a choice for some immigrant families, and no, I'm not referring to Lubavitch. Some immigrants headed into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The Boro Park section of Brooklyn was fairly much populated by people from far earlier migrations who were already established and able to buy houses for themselves or rent "better" apartments than available in the Lower East Side or Williamsburg. The same could be said about the small community that existed in Midwood. Many an immigrant who found themselves in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side migrated to Boro Park because they wanted a better standard of living, they wanted out of the crowded conditions found elsewhere. And in the late 60s/early 70s, as the character of Boro Park was starting to change, lots of younger couples started moving into Midwood/Flatbush because they didn't want what Boro Park was becoming.

Well guess what? Whatever Midwood/Flatbush may have been like in those late 60s/early 70s it's not like that today. Back then Midwood was an MO area with only small dots of those to the far right. Today the MO find themselves in the minority, not the majority. Schools that were major presences in the community have disappeared.

Then there is this. When Jews move into a community and establish stable, thriving communities there, the prices of housing go up. Sure, that's great for those who bought on the low end and can now realize a huge profit, but what about young couples just starting out now? The children of those living in these communities cannot, for the most part, afford to rent or to buy in the same communities where their parents live. So they look elsewhere to new or newer communities where prices are more in keeping with their income. And what do you suppose happens to those older, well established, thriving communities when they cannot attract enough younger families? They hit a downward spiral. Yeshivas in a community require that when the eighth grade graduates there is at least an equal number of students coming in to kindergarten/first grade. If younger couples are not moving in in sufficient numbers to keep populating the yeshivas, they aren't going to stay viable. This past year there were already many empty seats in the elementary schools of the Mir and Chaim Berlin and Torah VoDaas as younger families who would have been their "customers" have moved down to the Lakewood area which is, at least for now, cheaper than Midwood.

Someone questioned on my posting of the advertisement from the Young Israel of Plainview why the community there would refer to itself as thriving and yet be offering financial incentives to younger married couples with children to move there. The answer is fairly simple: they are thriving now but in order to stay thriving and be thriving in the future they MUST have younger couples moving in. Otherwise they have a built in "expiration date," as do many older communities.

My own home community of Willowbrook is doing a lot of talking about how to attract younger families to what is not a bargain basement housing area (although rentals and sales are cheaper than in most of the frum populated areas of Brooklyn and Queens). When a house owned by frum members of the community sells here the first question is did a frum young couple buy it? And no, that is not always the case. Unless replacement numbers remain parallel to the numbers of those leaving a community, there is trouble coming down the road. And it's not just our community--it's all frum communities that need to take heed of this.

I fully well believe, based on past events, that the frum communities of 25 to 50 years from now will not necessarily reflect the frum communities of today. Those who believe that the frum communities in existence now are here to stay forever need to remember that old saying: those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. And sometimes, as we have seen in the past, even studying that past history doesn't mean we are going to avoid events.


tesyaa said...

Agree 100%. According to this link, Newark once had a Jewish population of 80,000 with 50 shuls.


Also, in NJ a lot of frum communities have high taxes but poor public schools - an anomaly which doesn't bode well for future property values.

Anonymous said...

So, ProfK what are you suggesting communities do? How much can communities afford to subsidize younger families to attract them when tuitions already suck up a lot of the wealth. While its sad that some couples can't afford to settle where they grew up because housing costs have escalated, this is by no means a Jewish phenoomenon. It happens to all types of people everyday. The difficulty is that there are fewer options for those people who can only live where there is certin infrastructure. While it can be sad to see once vibrant communities dying out, in some ways it may be a good thing that new communities are developing in other areas, particularly in other parts of the country. The prices, noise and pace of life in the greater NYC area is not for everyone.

Tuvi said...

There's not much you can do about housing costs in a community short of requiring that any Jews selling a house sell it at way below market value and only to a frum couple, something that is never going to happen.

About the only place you can make a difference, and I don't know that that difference isn't just putting off the inevitable, is the area of Jewish schooling. Tuition has to go down and has to go down by more than 50%, probably a lot more than that. The higher the real estate the lower the tuitions have to be, not the opposite. Members of a community need to know that they aren't going to have their schools around forever because replacement families aren't going to be moving in in enough force of numbers to keep the schools viable. Building palacees to house the schools in is nice in the short term but those palaces won't have any students in a few years down the road and will have to merge and/or close down.

We moved from Brooklyn to NJ not quite two years ago. At the rate of tuition increases we are seeing it's not just my kids who won't be able to afford to live in the community we are living in. By the time my kids get to high school, if tuitions keep rising as they have been, I'm going to have to look for another community somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Excellent posting. And a good reminder of why schools should be holding down expenses and cutting out expenses while they can. A school in our area built a whole new bulding with a 20 year mortgage. With housing costs and the price of tuition that school will most likely have to close down before it can pay off the mortgage. The talk where I live is that in a pretty short time we are going to be a retirement village not a mixed age community.

Rae said...

The post brings up a truth a lot of people may really know about but don't want to face. On my husband's side they are 6th generation American. Except for a stray one or two people none of the generations have all lived in the same community. And only one of my kids is living near us now. The others have moved a lot further oot. Even the one living near us now will have to make a decision in a few years about where to go. Our area does have some apartment sections but the cost of housing when they will get ready to buy plus the cost of tuition for their kids will make it almost impossible for them to stay. They both make decent salaries now and the earnings will go up but so will the cost of housing and schooling.

Even we will have to face a move somewhere down the road. We own our home outright but when we retire this is going to be too much house for us and the cost of living will eat too much into retirement savings. And no, we don't want to have to be shoveling snow in our older years either.

Yossi said...

Communities that have only houses in them or only single family houses are going to die earlier then the communities that have apartment buildings. People have to live somewhere and apartments generally are still cheaper then buying a house is. One reason why so many communities are in trouble or will get into trouble is that we push the idea of home ownership on everyone. If you don't own your own home by X time then there must be something wrong with you. And we push houses to own not apartments where condos or coops are available.

efrex said...

Pretty much spot on, although the actual communal life in pre-Europe was socially quite a bit more complex than you let on (I know that's not the main point of your post; forgive the pontification). Many yeshiva bochurim were newly-married young men who were not really preprared to start life on their own, and communities were far from monolithic or static even then. Economic standards and levels of cultural assimilation varied tremendously, as did population mobility.

US communities have cycled through quite a few iterations (Washington Heights has had at least four separate lifetimes since the early 20th century), and will certainly continue to do so. That being said, I think it's equally important to place the current American klal economic problems in the larger context of the American economic shift. The costs of housing and private education have skyrocketed in general, and you can't really just blame the former on increased stability and desirability of established Jewish communities.

It's also worth noting that communities can rebound in different ways. My father-in-law grew up in Waterbury CT during its bust cycle, and he still can't stop laughing at the idea of young frum Jews moving there. I expect that some of the old Bronx communities will get some revival as well, as Washington Heights and Riverdale push people to new/old places.

Regardless, your overall point remains salient: change is inevitable in communities, and both newcomers and old-timers need to be aware of that fact and work accordingly.

Anonymous said...

What you say may be true for some communities butt I think you aren't taking a different fact into consideration. Jewish family size is pretty large. Let's say 4-6 kids. I think you can figure that at least one of those kids will be able to afford the area where they grew up. So the community will remain okay. The other kids may have to find other communities.

Allen said...

Your numbers don't add up Anon. If only one child from a family can afford to stay in a community then those one children would have to marry outside of their community and bring their spouse into the community. Otherwise, if children in a community marry each other you only have 50% replacement. At a minimum you would have to have two children per family who could afford to stay in a community to even come close to 100% replacement.

And then there is the male/female issue. Girls often marry outside of their community and live elsewhere. They also don't in general have the higher of the two incomes in a two-earner family. We've been told that there are more girls than boys available for shidduchim, so we have to figure that the families in those established communities may just be having more girls than boys in their families. You can't use that 1 out of 5 will stay at home if you are talking about families with more girls than boys.

For total replacement of those in a given community you have to attract outsiders who have never lived in the community. And you are going to do so only if you are affordable for those outsiders. The more expensive a community the less affordable to large numbers of people. The less affordable the smaller the community becomes.

tesyaa said...

If change is inevitable, I don't see why we want to stop it. The Jews of Newark (who I referenced above) started successful communities in West Orange, Livingston, Maplewood, and so on. Paterson was a huge community, and Fair Lawn and Passaic are part of Paterson's legacy.

There is a problem for the people who remain in a dying community, and we should have sympathy for those people and support them emotionally and religiously and financially if necessary, but it may not make sense to try to attract young people to a place they don't want to move to. (Maybe jobs have changed and the commute is not appealing; and so on).

Sarah said...

So what's the answer? Why do some communities manage to hang on for what seems like forever while other communities die out after a few decades? Why and how do some communities that are dying manage not only to stay alive but to grow again? How do some communities that are really small in size manage to hang on decade after decade while some larger communities don't make it? Is it all about money or is there something else that contributes to the life or death of a community?

Anonymous said...

Interesting cycle. In the midle part of the 2th century, a lot of jewish communities, particularly in inner city areas like the Bronx died out due to upward mobility and folks moving to greener, more affluent areas. Now the reverse is happening. People move to settle in less expensive areas.

Lion of Zion said...


"agree with the post."

on spot with the post. i'm amazed the way people venerate certain communities as if it were yerushalayim


"We moved from Brooklyn to NJ not quite two years ago . . . By the time my kids get to high school, if tuitions keep rising as they have been, I'm going to have to look for another community somewhere else."

tuition and property taxes only go up (often it seems faster than inflation and wage raises). this isn't a secret. so why settle in a community in which you know you can't sustain yourself?

i'm not trying to be critical, just trying to understand the mindset. e.g., is everyone hoping for future high income growth, a yerushah, a spouse going back to work?

Miami Al said...

This is 100% true, and also why the "long term solutions" aren't useful. Those "building a Yeshiva" that do it with a mortgage, aren't "building it" per se. Those that built it without and build an endowment create a community ripe for people from a different viewpoint to come in and take it.

An upwardly mobile affluence MO community with an endowed Yeshiva will attract people with lower incomes to take advantage of that, and with those lower incomes generally comes a more rightwing Hashkafa. So the community shifts right taking the accumulated wealth with it. If your kids aren't going to live there and send their kids to the Yeshiva, what incentive is there for you to care beyond your last child graduating?

Mark said...

ProfK, excellent post. I've never understood why people expect, or even support efforts, neighborhoods to remain static somehow, and in this case to always remain frum. Neighborhoods change, and have always changed since the dawn of time.

If the Staten Island frum community really wants to forestall its decline, all they need to do is advertise their wonderful $6,500/year school, and some young folks will move there.

LOZ - i'm not trying to be critical, just trying to understand the mindset. e.g., is everyone hoping for future high income growth, a yerushah, a spouse going back to work?

I've thought about this for years, no, for decades, and the only conclusion I can come to is "kimmt de moshiach" ... the people believe that the Mashiach will arrive just in time to save us from ourselves. It's actually rather heartening that we still maintain that belief at our very core, even to the extent of endangering the security of our future.


Dov said...

Seems to me that the communities that will remain alive and that will remain successful are the ones that recognize from the beginning that there could be problems in maintaining themselves down the road. A community needs to build into its system a way of dealing with people leaving a community for whatever reason and replacing those people.

We jews must have an architecture gene somewhere because looking at our present communities we seem to favor biiiig houses, biiiig shul buildings and biiiig school buildings. What if a community that is growing is faced with building a new shul or enlarging a school to fit all the students? What if instead of spending let's say 5 million on an architectural wonder the community would say they are putting in only half that money, getting the size they need, and the fancy windows and floors will be done without? What if they put that other half of the money into a community endowment fund and let it make some interest? What if that endowment money could be used to lower the expenses that the community has to maintain itself? What if that money could be used to help out new, younger members of the community until they are in their higher earning years? What if we understood that wanting less now might result in getting more later?

If we're supposed to be so smart about money isn't it about time that we used that smartness to help ourselves and our communities?

Lion of Zion said...


maybe in lakewood. i don't think the typical person in teaneck is banking on mashiach

Tuvi said...

Lion, before we moved from Brooklyn to Jersey we looked at what we thought our expenses might be not just for the immediate time after the move but for some years into the future. We figured wrong in some cases. Yes there is inflation and we knew that, but the rate that the schools are raising tuition is higher then the rate of inflation and is remaining pretty steady. If the schools continue to go up 5% a year in tuition price then in ten years they will cost closer to double what they cost now, plus high school costs more then grade school to begin with.

Even in good years I'm not getting a 5% raise every year. We'd hoped to be putting away money now towards the higher expenses later as well as towards our eventual retirement. We're not able to put away as much as we had planned which means less interest because less money is being saved. Our original plan was to live only off of my income and save from my wife's income--not happening that way.

The move down the road? We bought our house way below market value for the area and we didn't buy a McMansion that requires huge outlay to keep up. Down the road we just may have to sell the house at a high point in the market, move somewhere cheaper and use the house profit towards the rest of the kids' education expenses, always assuming there is somewhere cheaper by that time in the tri-stqate area.

profk_offspring said...

If the Staten Island frum community really wants to forestall its decline, all they need to do is advertise their wonderful $6,500/year school, and some young folks will move there.

I wish it were that simple. I grew up in Staten Island and would have loved to have stayed there. I love the community. But I couldn't afford to buy anything there (they just don't have lower-cost housing that's good for those starting out who aren't making very high salaries), so I ended up moving to the apartments in Teaneck because in my case moving out of the region entirely just isn't an option for a whole bunch of reasons and it was hashkafically in the ballpark. So the real estate was relatively cheap, but absolutely nothing else is. Stuck between a rock and a hard place.