In our street by street census we found 152 Jewish synagogues, religious schools and social service centers in the area. Most of them are associated with the 50,000 or so Hassidic (“the Pious Ones”) Orthodox Jews who belong to a group called Satmar, who derive their name from a town, Satu Mar, in present day Hungary from which they emigrated. They are very strict in their separation from “worldly culture.” Controversially, some of the Satmar community leaders have tried to censor dissidents and whistleblowers from going outside of the community with tales of wrong-doing.
In addition to Satmar many other groups of Hassidic, Orthodox and other Jews have settled in Williamsburg-Greenpoint area at some point. However, Greenpoint has lost most of its Jewish population, and its five synagogues which originated in the 19th Century has shrunk to one on Noble Street, Congregation Ahavas Israel.
The synagogue was founded as a German Jewish Orthodox congregation in 1893 and took over a building that had served a Congregational church. In 1903 after a merger with the Reform-orientated Temple Beth El, the synagogue built an additional building next door. However, Williamsburg is burgeoning with growth of Judaic organizations.
Early in the Twentieth Century Orthodox and secular Jews settled in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. An example is Red Auerbach, whose father was Belarus. Auerbach got his nickname “Red,” his love basketball and a secular Jewish upbringing in Williamsburg during the 1930s. As a kid he lived hoping to get out of the poverty stricken places that he lived in Williamsburg, mostly on the edge of today’s Hasidic area and in East Williamsburg. A glimpse of 1940s Hassidic life (and its discontents) is provided by Chaim Potok in his novel The Chosen.
Just before World War II and afterwards, at least twenty Hassidic groups moved into Williamsburg.
Today, a rough estimate is that 61,000 Jews live in the NYC government defined community district of Williamsburg-Greenpoint, making up 35% of the general population. (The comprehensive Jewish Community Study of NY: 2011 does not include Greenpoint with Williamsburg and its definition of Williamsburg includes an area lying south of the community district as defined by the city. In the United Jewish Federation study’s Williamsburg there are over 74,500 Jews, also making up 35% of the general population.)
The number of Jews in Williamsburg is increasing rapidly. Between 2002 and 2011 their population increased by 41%. With families commonly including up to 8-10 children this population will continue to grow. Over 50% of the Jews in Williamsburg are children under age 18.
The Williamsburg Jews are mostly Orthodox. 82% indicate that they identify with Orthodox Judaism. 83% attend synagogue; 84% keep kosher households; 90% give to charities, mainly religious charities; and 60% do religious studies. 95% of the children attend or have attended Jewish day schools.
The trend among Jews in Brooklyn is toward more Orthodoxy. In 2010 the Values Research Institute surveyed by telephone 654 Jews in Brooklyn and found that 59% of the Jews in Brooklyn identified themselves as Orthodox. About 38% of the Orthodox are those Jews who are very strict with their practices and are often called “Haredi,” “the pious ones.” Every year the Orthodox increases its proportion of the Jews in Brooklyn by 1.5%. The large growing Orthodox population in Williamsburg, which makes up about 13% of the Jews in Brooklyn, is indicative of the larger religious trend.
It is also certain that we missed quite a few Jewish organizations in our Journey census because we only list what we can see from the street and even that is limited in practice. Let me give you an example.
I remember classifying the overwhelming number of Satmar Orthodox Jewish sites in one block of Bedford Avenue. As I worked my way down the block deciphering the Hebrew letters, a young kid was leaning against a fence at the end of the block watching me. When I wearily got to the end of the block with darkness already having overtaken me, I was ready to call it quits. Instead, the Satmar kid had cooked up a different plan for me.
He asked, “What are you doing?”
I explained about A Journey through NYC religions and how we went about our work going down the street. I half-complained that his block just about exhausted me with the vast number of religious sites. But I triumphantly added that I had finished!
“You missed one,” he said.
“What? I walked every inch of this street, both sides. Where did I miss one?” I retorted. What a smart alec!
“At the other end of the block you missed the synagogue with its name on the door,” he laconically observed.
“I was there. See here is the photo,” I said, trying to prove my point.
“Hmm,” he said leaning over to look. “Blow that photo up. See, there is writing.”
I sputtered, “How can I read that from the street? The letters are tiny and in the dark? How do you know that it is a synagogue?”
“I know the rabbi.”
Uh-oh, is he kidding me?, I thought.
“You ought to go back,” he added.
“How do you know the rabbi?, I asked, rather dumbly as it turned out.
“He’s my father. You need to go back.”
I grudgingly walked back to the other end of the block and wrote down the name and came back. The kid looked over to see if I had put the Hebrew down correctly. Evidently, my practically illiterate Hebrew passed muster in this case, because he smiled. Fortunately, he did not ask me to speak the name in Yiddish.
I had become the student, and he the teacher. Crazy. But he was right.
“Do you want to meet my Dad? he asked.
I now chuckled at this smart alec kid who has now maneuvered me to make sure that his Dad and his synagogue got proper recognition. I also laughed a thankful laugh for his invitation to do some reporting. I was now energized and engaged. The night is young!, I thought.
And that was the beginning of another long story about the hospitality of the Satmar Jews who seem so distant to outsiders. I learned a lot about their organization that provides kosher meals, measured by Satmar standards, to hospital patients. It turns out that their shipping station was across the street from where the kid was standing. There was no sign, and I didn’t notice them putting meals into a truck. I wondered, how unconscious was I? What kind of reporter am I? The kid and his Dad taught me a lot of humbleness and insight into the Satmar community.
As they packed up their evening meals, they allowed me to pepper them with questions and taking photos. All the time, they kept saying that they were in a hurry (Satmar Jews on business tend to walk straight and fast without looking side by side—you know, the straight and narrow path). But they kept answering until finally they said, “Okay, we have got to go.”
I was left on the street in the dark, but I felt differently about Williamsburg. I had really only been seeing the scene from the narrow perspective of my coffee spot on north Bedford Avenue. True, I knew about the Jewish Orthodox Chabad place upstairs, but it was like a parallel universe, sensed but never traveled through. Now, I realized that it was part of my universe, or, I was part of it and the world of the Satmars on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge.
And what about the Jewish mega-high school? That is Khhd Yoel on Rutledge Avenue.
For more features on Williamsburg-Greenpoint: