Cultural Ties and Low Costs Lure Orthodox Couples to Lower East Side
New York Times It was a homecoming no one in their families could have predicted
By Tina Kelley
Published February 29, 2000
, to the Lower East Side neighborhood their parents' generation could not wait to leave.
Shoshona Laks, 25, remembered visiting her grandparents as a child on Rosh Hashana to toss bread in the East River for tashlich, the New Year's rite of atonement. Her husband, Abe, 30, used to stand in line with 50 others to nosh at Bernstein's kosher deli on Essex Street.
But move back near the bubbes? No. "My parents moved out," Mrs. Laks recalled thinking. "I'm not going to live here."
Yet here they are, along with a growing number of other young Orthodox Jewish couples. In January 1998, after the death of Mrs. Laks's grandfather, they moved from Brooklyn into his apartment on Grand Street, across the street from the one where her mother's parents lived. Then last year the couple moved down the street into an apartment of their own, also in Cooperative Village, the center of the old Jewish neighborhood's revival.
The sprawling complex of 4,200 apartments in 11 buildings was built for union members between the 1940's and the 60's, after the old tenements were torn down. Like the other young Orthodox couples moving back to the neighborhood, the Lakses were drawn by the low cost, convenience, safety and spirit of the cooperative.
The area's cultural and historical significance is also part of the appeal. Mr. Laks, a law student, is glad to be part of the resurgence. "It maintains the community that was here before," he said. "Imagine if the whole Jewish community of the Lower East Side wasn't here. Being here helps to preserve that."
This is not the Lower East Side of poverty and sweatshops, or the one of trendy nightclubs and tenements converted into million-dollar lofts. It is the plainer, cheaper neighborhood south of Delancey Street, once home to a huge enclave of Jews from Eastern Europe. The neighborhood shrank in the years after World War II, when the second and third generations moved up and out to Brooklyn, or to Long Island and other suburbs.
"Anyone who could buy a house did," said Holly Kaye, executive director of the Lower East Side Conservancy. "They had come up in life enough that they could form another diaspora."
Now, the signs of the neighborhood's renewal are everywhere. Fliers announce cooking lessons, even for kosher sushi. Nearly 30 synagogues, including a collection of about 10 small ones on East Broadway -- they call it Shtiebel Row -- each offer up to five services some mornings.
The cooperatives are allowing large Orthodox families to break through walls to expand apartments. Bais Shlomo Zalman, a preschool that served five children three years ago, is trying to find room for 45. There is another Orthodox preschool, Torah Tots, and a day camp offering a "haimish atmosphere" -- warm and homey.
"When everybody's grandfather came here from Europe, this is where they went," said Yaakov Martin, 24, a co-owner of the M & M Dairy on Grand Street. He moved to the Lower East Side three years ago with his wife, who grew up in the neighborhood. "It's kind of like going back to their roots," he said.
Mr. Martin's father-in-law lives downstairs, a brother-in-law and two sisters-in-law are in the neighborhood, and he has persuaded his father and brother to move from Brooklyn.
William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said there were 31,000 Jews in the entire Lower East Side in 1990, up from 19,000 in the 1980's. He expects the numbers to increase sharply in this year's census, with particular growth in the Orthodox population.
During the last 10 years, the new arrivals have been mostly 25 to 40 years old, from Jewish communities around the metropolitan area, residents say. Many attend college or graduate school in Manhattan.
"They settle here because they say, 'Look how wonderful it is,' " said Heshey Jacob, the general manager of Cooperative Village. "It's like they skipped