Jewish Life on Upper East Side Buoyed by Influx of Observant Jews

Architectural rendering of the Moise Safra Community Center, slated to open in 2014 on the Upper East Side. (Photo from MSCC's Pinterest)

Architectural rendering of the Moise Safra Community Center, slated to open in 2014 on the Upper East Side. (Photo from MSCC’s Pinterest page)

The Upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville, once known as Germantown for its beer halls, pastry shops and sausage purveyors, is today attracting more and more young Jewish residents – many of them Orthodox. At the same time, synagogues and centers such as the Moise Safra Community Center, slated to open in 2014, are supporting the needs of this burgeoning community, reports Steve Lipman in The Jewish Week.

Jewish life on the Upper East Side has traditionally centered around Lexington Avenue, Lipman notes, where there is a nucleus of Jewish religious outlets, including the Modern Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, its Ramaz Day School, the Conservative Or Zarua and the 92nd Street Y.

Now,  Jewish life is pushing east — far east — and the area is attracting young families as well as singles.

Singles include Stacie Glick, 29, who moved uptown from the Murray Hill area the better to learn more about traditional Judaism, as well as young families, such as Matthew and Gealia Friend and their 18-month daughter, who moved from the West Side of Manhattan, where they were “priced out,” according to Friend.

The neighborhood, he said, combines the “sophistication” of Manhattan with the “atmosphere of a small town.” He said it lacks nothing for a Torah-observant family, citing the range of kosher products available at the area’s Fairway supermarket, on East 86th Street, and further uptown at Costco on 116th. The area, he said, “is very self-sufficient.”

Indeed, Lipman notes that several new restaurants are appealing to Jewish residents of the area, including the just-opened glatt kosher Cake Land bakery on York and 77th; Prime Butcher Baker, an upscale shop run by Joey Allaham of the Prime Grill restaurant, and a stylish vegan restaurant and wine bar, V Note, which was opened in late 2010, at First Avenue and 80th Street, by the owner of the Upper West Side’s vegetarian restaurant Blossom.

But it’s the opportunity to partake in a broad range of community activities that may be most appealing to the new young residents. Options cut across all denominations, Rabbi Scott Bolton, who took over the pulpit last year at Congregation Or Zarua, which is Conservative, told Jewish Week’s Lipman.

The revival has spawned what Rabbi Bolton calls “a spirit of cooperation among rabbis” of all denominations. Rabbis from 11 congregations on the Upper East Side, representing the three major branches of Judaism, last year formed a Torah Learning Coalition, which sponsors a series of lectures and classes at their various shuls on a rotating basis. And members of Orach Chaim, Or Zarua and Kehilath Jeshurun recently took part in a joint educational program on Jewish burial under the auspices of the Vaad Harabanim of Queens Chavra Kadisha.

The neighborhood’s Chabad Lubavitch center moved into a seven story 17,000-square-foot building eight years ago and is now outgrowing the space. The center currently offers an early morning learning program, a pre-school, adult education classes, programs for young professionals and a Friendship Circle group for special needs children.

And some time next year, a 12-story, $50 million Sephardic Community Center named for Moise Safra, brother of the Lebanese-born banker and philanthropist Edmond J. Safra, is expected to open on Lexington Avenue at 83rd Street; it will house a synagogue to handle the Upper East Side’s growing Syrian Jewish population, as well as a kosher café, a pool and exercise rooms.

Despite the influx of young Jews, however, there has not been a reversal in the overall decline in Jewish residents on the Upper East Side, Lipman notes.

The revival of observance is a statistical anomaly, as the area’s Jewish population has actually dropped by about 10 percent in the past decade, according to UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study.

But those Jews who are relocating to the neighborhood are clearly drawn by what it offers them.

“The numbers are down, but the participation rate is up,” said Rabbi Elie Weinstock, associate rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun. “People who move in are people who participate.”

Jewish leaders in the neighborhood are in agreement.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, executive director of the neighborhood’s Chabad Lubavitch network of outreach centers, calls Jewish life on the Upper East Side “New York’s best-kept secret.”

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