Friday, January 07, 2005

Staten Island

There may be two Staten Islands or perhaps two different Jewish Staten Islands, one of them described in The Jewish Week a couple weeks back as "thriving Jewish life," which echoed previous sunny reports. The other is the Jewish community that I have been intensively involved in for thirty years although I live elsewhere, a circumstance arising from the decision of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School to relocate there in the expectation that the Verrazano Bridge and the establishment of a young Orthodox community in the Willowbrook section would serve as magnets for many additional Jews and Staten Island would develop Jewishly as Teaneck and the Five Towns have.

That hasn't happened, at least not yet. A yeshiva high school that not long ago had parallel classes and attracted students from throughout the metropolitan area closed down shortly before this school year. Over the years, other Jewish schools have failed to make it. The record would be worse had the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School not intervened to help in an unprecedented way a large day school that was at the brink of financial collapse. Most seriously, enrollment in the three elementary schools serving the community has declined, this at a time when the Jewish population has soared.

Thriving? I would say that the description is more than an exaggeration.

A new $33 million dollar Jewish community center is scheduled to open in about two years. That is a good sign, particularly for those who believe - against abundant evidence to the contrary - that JCC's contribute substantially to the Jewish character of a community. They are nice fixtures and can accomplish a bit of good, but not much more. In any case, a JCC on Staten Island scarcely offsets the big-time problems on the educational front.

Staten Island's Jewish population is the fastest growing of New York's boroughs, up 27% in a decade and approaching 50,000. First there was a wave of ex-Israelis and recently there has been significant Russian migration, as upwardly mobile Former Soviet Union families have made it their second place of settlement on these shores, purchasing single-family homes that cost a good deal less than homes nearly everywhere else in the city and the suburban areas. This is, incidentally, another bit of evidence that claims of widespread Russian Jewish poverty spread by our povertycrats and Russian organizations and eagerly gobbled up by our media do not present an accurate picture. I recently visited a Russian "Jewish" school in Brooklyn with more than 1,000 students and a long waiting list where tuition is $6,000, excluding other charges, and scholarship assistance is not available.

Importantly, the intermarriage rate of Staten Island Jews is about 15%, far below the rate nearly everywhere else. Israelis maintain close family and other ties to the Jewish state and tend to be traditional. At this stage of their American development, Russian Jews continue to be insular and this retards their acculturation and the likelihood of marrying out. It is certain, however, that as time passes, insularity will diminish significantly and there will be a corresponding increase in intermarriage.

What is problematic about the Jewish prospect goes beyond the weakened educational system, although that is a particularly worrisome factor. There may not be as large a Jewish population anywhere on the globe that is as lacking as most Staten Island Jews are in the basic infrastructure of Jewish life. Elsewhere there are synagogues, supplementary schools, much informal Jewish education, Jewish newspapers, a host of organizations and activities that help to maintain a sense of Jewish connectedness. Staten Island's non-Orthodox synagogues are few and in trouble and do not attract more than a small number of the newcomers.

The vastness of Staten Island and the fact that the Russians and Israelis have settled in areas with limited or no Jewish resources add to the concern that these Jews or their offspring may ultimately fall away.

There are places of fruitful activity, including an outreach community in the New Springfield section, an outreach organization that arranges for marginally religious families to send their children to day school, a large Young Israel and Chabad. The atrophying of the educational base has greatly undermined these activities. A large majority of the newly-arrived families are not being reached at all.

What Staten Island needs, perhaps desperately, is more and better leadership at both the rabbinic and lay levels. It needs people of commitment and vision whose communal activities, whether paid or voluntary, are focused on their community and not on presumed greener pastures elsewhere. There are good and talented people but if they and others look outside of Staten Island for the fulfillment of their aspirations, they will not do the job that is needed and their community will be shortchanged.

Compared to other places of significant Jewish settlement in North America where invariably there are major pockets of Jewish affluence, Staten Island Jewry is in the aggregate a community of modest means. However, there is a giving spirit, notably among the Orthodox and this is impressive. Unfortunately, here too there is a pronounced tendency to look far afield and to concentrate much of the giving on outside causes. I refer not to contributions to Israel but to U.S. charities.

Since the Jewish population will continue to grow, if only because of the low cost of housing, there is a heightened obligation to address communal needs. This isn't easy because of Jewish infrastructure weaknesses. A $33 million dollar Jewish community center may attract media attention but it will do little to connect tens of thousands of Jews to their heritage. Unless the existing day schools are supported and strengthened and other educational institutions are established, there will be bad news.

There is a pressing need for a day school that will meet the expectations of the newly-arrived families. Plans are underway to create such a school. We will soon know whether they reach fruition.