By Sarina Roffé
Neighborhoods in Brooklyn are a direct reflection of the changing ethnicities and religions of the people who live in them. During the last 100 or so years, Brooklyn has embraced Jews from all over the world, and holds first place for having the largest Jewish population on the planet.
Brighton Beach, once the home of Eastern Europeans and Holocaust survivors, saw a drastic change as it embraced Refuseniks from the former Soviet Union in the latter part of the 20th Century. Signs that were once in Yiddush are now in Russian.
Bensonhurst, which had Ashkenazic Jews at one end and Syrian Jews at the other, has been transformed to welcome Russian Jews and Asians. Greenpoint is seeing a growth spurt as its historic Orthodox synagogue is growing.
Syrian Jews moved to the Ocean Parkway area in the 1960s and opened their arms to Sephardic Jews from Morocco, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. As ties to Sephardic Jews in neighboring countries tightened due to ease of travel and technology, families with ties to Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Argentina were reunited, as well as Cuba. The community grew exponentially and expanded into Homecrest, Midwood, Gravesend, Madison, and Mill Basin.
Midwood and Madison, which was once primarily filled with Conservative, mostly assimilated, Ashkenazic Jews, has become more Modern Orthodox. Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Brooklyn Heights offer homes for urban millennials from varied ethnic backgrounds. These neighborhoods often have synagogues in storefronts and offer every level of observance from progressive to Reform to ultra Orthodox.
Borough Park, which was always Ashkenazic, has now transformed into a primarily Hasidic neighborhood, as has Williamsburg. The streets are filled with men wearing traditional Hasidic garb, large families, and women in modest dress.
Brownsville, a community of Progressive Jews in the first half of the 20th Century, is now mostly devoid of Jews, yet its monuments are a constant reminder of vibrant Jewish activism. Crown Heights has become home to Lubavitch Hasidim, who live in peaceful coexistence with African and Caribbean Americans in the wake of the Crown Heights Riots.
Each of these neighborhoods has institutions and businesses that cater to their needs. In Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg, you will find hat milliners and wig makers. Kosher supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and restaurants are abundant in each community with a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews. As the elderly population is living longer, there are kosher food markets that cater to them, offering prepared meals.
It is easy to find kosher restaurants from almost any country. Enjoy Japanese, Italian, Israeli, Chinese, Indian or Mexican food. Relish in vegan, vegetarian, take out food, pizza, falafel and shwarma, or sub sandwiches. There are even multiple kosher Subway and Dunkin Donut stores. A kosher take out restaurant near a yeshiva high school is a prime location!
Synagogues and social halls in each of these neighborhoods are also a reflection of each community. There are so many, each with a slightly different philosophy, catering to specific ethnic group. Since Orthodox men pray three times a day and need a minyan (10 men), there are places that cater to them, offering services every 15 minutes around the clock. The majority of Jews in Brooklyn send their children to Jewish day schools (yeshivas), and buses taking children to and from these schools fill the streets each morning and afternoon.
The Sabbath and Jewish holidays are heavily observed and fringe businesses service this industry. For example, flower vendors will pop-upon street corners on Fridays as families prepare for the Sabbath. Before holidays, stores open to cater to seasonal needs. For example, Sukkah Depot and other stores selling sukkahs (temporary structure) open in September as families prepare for the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, when they need to erect this temporary structure. Street vendors sell the lulav and etrog, needed for the Sukkot holiday. Restaurants will erect a sukkah for their customers. In late February, pop-up stores will sell noisemakers and costumes for Purim celebrations. Stores stock certain items at certain times of the year in preparation for certain holidays – candy for Purim, matzo for Passover, donuts and latkes for Hanukkah.
Social services also abound, with services being offered in multiple languages. Such services may include assistance obtaining government programs, senior citizen housing, job training and placement, medical referrals and housing placement. Each community has a community center filled with senior citizen and youth programs, day camps, and fitness classes.
Multiple languages fill the air in each of these communities. Visitors to Brooklyn will hear Arabic, Hebrew Yiddish, Russian, Farsi, and Spanish. The neighborhoods in Brooklyn have seen changes in the ethnic diversity among its Jewish population as it embraced Jews from all over the world. The languages spoken and in the businesses that support these neighborhoods specific needs are what makes Brooklyn unique.