Located on the main stretch of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach Avenue, among numerous Russian delis, Russian-language bookstores and a shuttered Russian travel agency, the Brighton Neighborhood Association stands out. Its window is one of the few on the block with signs predominantly in English, and it’s one of the few storefronts near the elevated tracks of the B and Q trains that doesn’t actually sell anything.
This doesn’t stop people — and definitely not elderly Russians — from strolling through the glass front door, unannounced, on a regular basis. Some mistake the office for a thrift store and start lifting up, one by one, the porcelain and enamel elephants, gifts from friends and other tchotchkes on the desk of Pat Singer, founder and executive director of BNA, a not-for-profit social service agency in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood that stretches for one mile along the Atlantic coast.
Singer has to break into her limited knowledge of Russian to shoo them away: “Not magazin, this office! Not for sale, nooo! Get your hands off my desk!”
All photos by Ari Jankelowitz
Singer, the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, is a community leader in this predominantly Russian-speaking neighborhood: “I’m called ‘the Mother of Brighton Beach,’ but I’m a bad mother, because I can’t communicate with my children.”
Born and raised in New York City, Singer, 73, used to take weekend trips to Brighton Beach as a teenager in the 1950s. She loved the area’s warm and sunny beaches, and began spending weeks at a time there over the summers. “People were friendly here! I liked the smells, the soft air, the bagels, the whitefish, the whole nine yards,” she said. This enclave of Jewish culture — Brighton was home to many Yiddish-speaking European Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors at the time — felt like a novelty and was markedly different from her experiences in Queens Village, a largely German Protestant area where Singer spent most of her childhood. There, Jews were explicitly excluded from community activities.
One year when Singer was in elementary school, she watched as all her peers prepared for an annual parade held by the local church. She was told she couldn’t participate as a Jew, but she wouldn’t let that get in her way: “I took my little sister and marched across Queens Village…. I got behind a float, and I stood there with my sister. Then this woman grabs me by the dress and my sister, and takes me into the Sunday school and says — she was my neighbor — ‘These girls aren’t Christian, they’re Jewish.’ So the reverend of the church called up my mother and said, ‘I have your daughters here.’ My mother said, ‘You know the Old Testament is the same in all religions, so let ’em march!’ And so we marched.”