Skip to content
The logo for Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Initiative whose mission is to Organize Public Events, Create Oral & Video Histories, Provide Resources to the Brooklyn Jewish Community

Brooklyn Jewish
Historical Initiative


One of Brooklyn’s most intriguing neighborhoods is Williamsburg. Mostly rural until 1802, it suddenly grew so large that in 1852 it was chartered as a city of its own. By 1855, Williamsburg was annexed by the city of Brooklyn. The construction of the Delancey Street approach to the Williamsburg Bridge displaced many of Manhattan’s East Side residents.


Untitled, 1800-1899, V1973.6.59; Brooklyn Photograph and Illustration Collection, ARC.202; Brooklyn Historical Society. Williamsburgh Bridge

Immigrants and Religion in Williamsburg

German Jews, who had been first to settle in Williamsburg, were joined in the early twentieth century by a vast influx of eastern European Jews and a smaller influx of Sephardim. Williamsburg became one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the country – and one of the poorest.

Untitled, 1904, V1974.22.10.21; Eugene L. Armbruster Photograph and Scrapbook Collection; Brooklyn Historical Society. Scene in the new Jewish Colony near the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge

The wealthier Germans, who had founded the first Reform temple, moved out over time to other neighborhoods, such as Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and streets around Prospect Park. The “uptown” Jewish community responded with fear and disdain to the eastern European Jewish masses, the “miserably darkened Hebrew” with whom “the thoroughly acclimatized American Jews … has no religious, social or intellectual ties.”

As Jenna Joselit writes in her history of New York’s Jewish Jews (1990), Williamsburg’s newer residents  established Orthodox institutions, fashioning ”their home-grown notion of American Orthodoxy” that was Zionist and educationally progressive (17).  Only later, in the 1930s and especially after the war did the Hungarian Hasidim arrive en masse and insist on their own style of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Gradually, the non-Hasidic Jewish elements left the neighborhood as the anti-Zionist, distinctively garbed Satmar moved in. By 1951, the last movie house on Lee Avenue was turned into the Rebbe’s residence and besmedresh (study hall) of the Klausenburgers Hasidic sect. Hungarian and Yiddish became the language of the streets of South Williamsburg. Williamsburg has also had waves of Italian, Polish and Latino immigrants who have imprinted their cultures on different sections of the community.

Map of the city of Brooklyn : being the former cities of Brooklyn & Williamsburgh and the town of Bushwick, as consolidated January 1st, 1855, by an Act of the Legislature of the State of New York, passed April 17th, 1854, showing the same as laid out by Commissioners and corrected as altered by different Acts of the Legislature up to date, showing also a part of the city of New York, 1856; Matthew Dripps, J.M. Grumman, George W. Lewis, BA-1856.FL Non-circulating; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Developing a Better Future

With the 1960s came a decline of once-thriving manufacturing and port facilities, and a housing shortage. Tension developed between different ethnic groups, with charges of discrimination and years of legal battles. Various groups established community organizations in the hard times of the 1960s and 1970s, including Los Sures, the Southside United Housing Development Fund Corporation, and the People’s Firehouse. Hasidic residents created the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and the Opportunity Development Association. These groups turned burned-out building into new housing, preserved a local firehouse, created health care centers, home care services and food stamp programs, and helped small stores survive and expand.

UJO has also developed computer literacy programs and job training for homemakers. Although Williamsburg residents face continuing challenges, community organizations and institutions have learned great deal from the past and are working toward a better future. Most important, they are working together to overcome common problems. After years of conflict between the Latino and Hasidic communities in Williamsburg, these groups have become partners in new ventures and neighborhood campaigns. “Housing, jobs, health care, and the environment – these are our issues for the future,” said Rabbi Niederman of the UJO.

Map of the village of Williamsburgh, Kings County : as laid out by the Commissioners appointed by the Legislature in 1827 : reduced from the large map in possession of the Trustees of the Village, 1833, Daniel Ewen, B A-1833.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.