Walk west along 87th street in Manhattan, between Broadway and West End Avenue, just a few steps past Brooks Brothers, a block from the famed Barney Greengrass deli and from the progressive synagogue B’nai Jeshurun, and you’ll find yourself looking up to yet another luxury condominium building in its final stage of construction.
But this one, the Chamberlain, is different.
The kitchens are all outfitted with Sub-Zero appliances that have a Sabbath mode, which means automatic lights are turned off and functions are set on timers. No more taping refrigerator light switches so that they stay on for the entire Sabbath, when turning on electricity is forbidden. One cabinet may be removed and replaced with a second dishwasher so that dairy and meat dishes won’t mix, in strict observance of kashrut laws. The laundry closet has room for a second washer and dryer — a necessity for large families and a luxury on this crowded island.
Downstairs, the automatic doors will be shut down from Friday sundown to Saturday nightfall, so no one must transgress Jewish law by triggering them to open. Each week, at the onset of the Sabbath, the elevator will stop at every floor — no need to press the button. A playroom and courtyard garden offer “Sabbath-adaptable” spaces for children to gather. And when you purchase an apartment here you receive a free “private school consultation,” which will “advise and guide families through the extensive private school, Jewish day school and yeshiva processes,” the sales team promises.
“We understood there is a large Orthodox population in the neighborhood,” Andrew Till, chief operating officer of Simon Baron Development, told me as we stood outside the construction site on a breezy Wednesday morning.
All this comes at a very steep cost. In the Chamberlain, a 39-unit condominium building including two townhouses and three penthouses, apartments are priced at between $2.4 million for a two-bedroom and $10.5 million (to start) for five bedrooms , and developers are aiming for a $189 million sellout, according to The Real Deal. The architects at FXCollaborative designed the building to fit in seamlessly in the neighborhood — an exterior that might evoke the Art Deco period, with its straight geometric lines “inspired by classic prewar construction,” according to its press releases. Sprawling apartments with grand foyers are a modern take on the Weissmans’ abode in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” if you will.
Here on the Upper West Side, in the bastion of liberal Judaism, a small tightly knit “yeshivish” Orthodox community is building its own world alongside the rainbow-tallit-wearers of Romemu, the egalitarian leaders of Hadar, and the throngs of young Jewish singles looking for love. Here, in the capital of progressive Judaism and left-wing political activism, a quiet evolution is taking place, and the Chamberlain is just the latest attempt to capitalize on the growing presence and power of observant, identifiable Orthodox Jews playing a leadership role in the future of American Jewry.
If you walk just two blocks north of the Chamberlain, on West 89th street, young yeshiva boys in velvet yarmulkes are starting their Mishnah shiur, their Talmud lesson.
Up another two blocks, around the corner from Equinox, a few young men enter a five-story building where daily Torah classes are given at the West Side Kollel.
Over on 93rd there’s a group of young mothers in long skirts and wigs gathering for brunch at the kosher Sunflower Cafe with a caravan of strollers.
And on Saturdays, walk down West End Avenue and you’ll see families in their Sabbath best, going to synagogue and visiting friends. (You may note that many will not be pushing strollers. While around Manhattan’s Upper West Side there is an eruv, which allows one to carry on the Sabbath by creating a quasi-private boundary around a neighborhood, many Orthodox Jews believe that such a boundary cannot be erected properly in Manhattan.)
Only 3% of Manhattan Jews identify as “yeshivish,” a term that is used interchangeably with “ultra-Orthodox” yet is a looser description of the Lithuanian Orthodox community that prizes prolonged yeshiva study for men and is colloquially called “black hat.” This is what Pearl Beck, lead author of the New York UJA-Federation 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York: Geographic Profile, told me, cautioning me that the error rate on this estimate may be substantial. “On the Upper West Side, in ZIP codes 10023, 10024 and 10025, only about 840 Jews identify as ‘yeshivish,’ and factoring in the average family size, that’s only about 140–180 households, approximately,” she said. “Most of New York City’s yeshivish and Hasidic households are in Brooklyn and are facing vast economic challenges.”
(Of those who report affiliation, Orthodox Jews number 64,000, the largest group of Manhattan Jews, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives’ 2010 study. That contrasts with an estimated 24,5536 Reform Jews and 9,079 Conservative Jews, though these numbers do not reflect the growing number of “nones,” unaffiliated Jews.)
Yet though still small in number, those black-hat-wearing Jews on the Upper West Side are far from the destitute families of Brooklyn. These are white-collar professionals, financiers and real estate developers who happen to wear black hats to synagogue, who have studied in Haredi yeshivas, whose wives wear wigs, whose sons go to the Yeshiva Ketana, on Riverside Drive, and daughters attend Gan and Bnos Aliya, an Orthodox Montessori school with a “Bais Yaakov” philosophy.
And developers are working hard to attract those wealthy Orthodox families to Manhattan.
To customize the Chamberlain’s offerings, Simon Baron hired Susie Fishbein, kosher chef and author of the bestselling “Kosher by Design,” as a consultant. “I was their Jewish life consultant,” she told me. “I told them: ‘It would be awesome to have a closet to store all the folding chairs.’ And they asked, ‘Well why would you have folding chairs?’ And I told them, we tend to have Thanksgiving every Friday night and have 10–20 people around the table. On the first floor, is there space to leave baby carriages? Are there no electric sensors on toilets or doors? No automatic lights or doors?”
The communal culture cultivated by a building was integral to her vision, Fishbein said. The shared play spaces for children are particularly helpful for those families who won’t use a stroller on the Sabbath. “It very much speaks to an Orthodox sensibility, an Orthodox lifestyle, that we are really home all weekend,” Fishbein said.
Some residents are skeptical as to whether many new Orthodox families will move into this part of the city, largely because of the cost.
“It’s just so exorbitantly expensive here,” one longtime black-hat-wearing resident of the West Side said. “The only people who can afford to stay long term are the people whose grandparents own the buildings.”
Suri Scharf, who just purchased an apartment in the Chamberlain for her children, agrees. “There’s definitely a trend of frum people who would like these amenities,” she said. “This just happens to be a very expensive neighborhood, not one that many young people can afford.”
But the marketing seems to be working, for some.
For Scharf, the Shabbat elevator was a major selling point. “You could buy on a high floor and get a great view and not have to worry about Shabbos,” she said. The other selling point? Her son-in-law was most excited about the Peloton exercise machine in the building’s gym. “It’s interesting what’s important to people,” she noted.
The elevator is, in fact, important. While some Orthodox Jews will allow a doorman to push a button for them on Shabbat, those who are more stringent require the specially equipped elevator. “There is a whole ‘shtibl world’ that needs a Shabbos elevator,” said Michael Landau, a businessman and chairman/founder of the Council of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of the West Side.
While Simon Baron is selling this apartment building as a novelty, softly targeting the Orthodox Jewish community — within the Fair Housing Act’s regulations, which require that homes be marketed to a general population — it is not the first developer to do this on the Upper West Side.
There are Orthodox-friendly residences at 441 and 535 West End Avenue, both buildings owned and developed by Orthodox Jewish developers, offering Shabbat elevators, large chef’s kitchens and many bedrooms — and there’s another kosher-friendly development in the works on 91st and Broadway, by Adam America. In fact, the Upper West Side has a long tradition of Jews in real estate developing buildings suited to their own communities. “In the early 20th century, much of the speculative building in New York was done by Jewish developers, some small scale, some larger,” said Andrew Dolkart, a professor of architecture at Columbia who is working on a book about the Upper West Side.
And, as Jane Margolies of The New York Times noted, marketing residences to specific communities is increasingly popular in New York City’s crowded housing market. In the Flushing section of Queens, one developer appealed to Asian buyers with a “park designed according to the principles of feng shui and brokers who speak fluent Mandarin,” while in Long Island City another condominium targeted South American buyers with a building design inspired by Buenos Aires architecture.
Yet the concept of offering an optional kosher kitchen altogether isn’t such a novelty. After all, the construction of a kosher kitchen isn’t so complicated. When you’re spending $5 million on an apartment, what’s an extra dishwasher? It’s all about marketing, one source in real estate development told me. It’s less about the small details and it’s more telling of real estate developers targeting a community that has more capital, more buying power, than ever before.
In the fervently Orthodox community, there are two notable social trends — and the Chamberlain, in all of its 17-story glory, stands at that very intersection.
For one — capital.
For decades, Manhattan was unaffordable for most religious Jews with large families, and it wasn’t the safest place to live, either. First-generation American Jews escaped the Lower East Side for greener pastures in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and then for Monsey and New Jersey, where enclaves could flourish, where space could accommodate larger families and where crime rates were low.
Yet now, Manhattan has changed — and Orthodox Jewry has changed, too.
In the city, crime is low and, in the Orthodox shtetl, wealth (for some) has grown. While lower-income families, mostly in the Haredi community, rely on government assistance and low-cost yeshivas, and while middle-class Orthodox Jews pour their entire income into their Judaism, into yeshiva education and into homes within walking distance of their synagogues, others find themselves in a different economic class, a Haredi bourgeoisie that is growing more and more visible.
Perhaps the most telling shift is the material aspirations of the community, as displayed on the street. Living standards have risen sharply, and it seems like nothing is unattainable for the observant Jew — from high-end kosher food to exotic travel programs to extravagant weddings. Flip through the advertisements or satirical cartoons in an Orthodox weekly, or join a frum women’s WhatsApp group, and you’ll hear the strains of high-roller life, complaints about the ever-climbing social expectations. Some even argue that the high cost of living may impede the future of Orthodox continuity altogether.
For many young families, buying a home in most metro-area Orthodox communities is unaffordable, as gentrification sweeps across Brooklyn and as yuppie Park Slope residents move into Flatbush — so new Orthodox bedroom communities have cropped up in New Jersey’s Jersey City and Toms River, as well as in Staten Island.
Meanwhile, those who have acquired wealth are seeking to move to Manhattan, where a traditional communal infrastructure has long been in place and can accommodate migrants from the Five Towns and Monsey who may be seeking the status of a Manhattan address — or the privacy of city life. The “shift to the right” is happening across American Orthodoxy, and for those still seeking religious moderation, and who can afford it, Manhattan might be the answer.
“There’s more anonymity in the city,” Landau told me. “I always say about the Upper West Side, as a frum Jew, it’s a very ‘live and let live’ environment.”
This is true, community members tell me, throughout the robust network of the West Side’s “black hat” Orthodox synagogues and schools: the Vorhand Shul and the Koznitz Shteebel, both on West 91st Street; Congregation Ahavath Chesed, known by locals as the Ridniker Shteibel, on West 89th Street, and the Boyaner Shteibel, on West End Avenue. At the community’s heart, on West End Avenue, stands the West Side Kollel, a center of Torah study for men that has about a dozen regulars studying Torah there full time; in the evenings, after work, it hosts popular Torah classes for men. On West 89th Street, Yeshiva Ketana, a boys’ yeshiva with over 100 young students, has been operating since 1946.
“When I was growing up, the West Side was a very small community, and it was always pretty much to the right,” Scharf said. “The Bikur Cholimsociety for aiding the ill, a food bank [Tomchei Shabbos], a Hatzolah [ambulance]. A lot of this was started generations ago. But now we do have new families moving in — families who move here from the East Side, from London, from Lawrence. I don’t think it’s gotten more right-wing since I’ve come here; there are just bigger groups of people now, because families have grown.”
It has perhaps never been easier for a devout Orthodox Jew to lead a successful professional life, one that can finance a Manhattan lifestyle, thanks largely to a shift in corporate American policies on accommodating religious employees.
“Up until the ’60s, white-shoe law firms wouldn’t accommodate Shabbat and taking off yom tov,” said Rebecca Kobrin, associate professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University. “Certain high-paying jobs demanded a lifestyle in which you couldn’t be observant. Today, it has become more normative, as the New York business world is accepting of different lifestyles in a way that it never was before.”
But perhaps it isn’t just wealth that’s grown in the Orthodox community. It’s also, interestingly, religious observance — and consequentially, there’s a shift in identity. Those who once went to Ivy League universities have become more religiously stringent and are now steering their children toward “Ivy League yeshivas,” the elite Haredi Torah institutions of Beth Medrash Govoha, in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva.
“There is a general shift to the right, people who are becoming more observant, families who were once Modern Orthodox ‘Young Israel style,’ who are now moving to the right,” Kobrin said. “This shift to the right is largely dependent upon the ‘year in Israel.’ It’s a subtle shift. In the ’50s and ’60s, the thought that your child would devote their life to learning would never have been a dream of a parent.”
Meanwhile, today, that is indeed a dream for many community members — and it’s an attainable one, too. After all, the ultimate sign of prosperity, in any community, is the ability to support one’s child so they never have to work in their lives — from Borough Park’s kollel students to Fifth Avenue’s trust fund kids.
Privacy, on the West Side, is central to the culture — and why I struggled getting people to speak to me on the record. It’s the anonymity that allows community members to compartmentalize and go from mornings in the boardroom to evenings in Hasidic rebbes’ courts.
“Many people here who straddle different worlds, they like how the West Side just lets you ‘be,’” one resident told me.
“It’s an island of black hats, within the larger black hat community,” another community member said. That is, members of this community don’t quite fit into the mold of the Orthodox shtetl, so they choose Manhattan.
And it is here that the Orthodox community’s movers and shakers live, making the neighborhood arguably more influential than the meccas of Lakewood and Brooklyn. Several leading board members of Agudath Israel, the umbrella organization and advocacy group representing American Haredi Orthodox Jewry, are residents of the West Side. Lakewood’s yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha — considered the most influential yeshiva outside Israel — recently hosted a weekend retreat for its board of governors on the Upper West Side. Every week, a regular stream of Israeli Haredi politicians and rabbis travel through the doors of these shtibls, hoping to attract the attention of Orthodoxy’s movers and shakers.
Few, even among the Orthodox community, know that those constructing 1,000-seat yeshivas in Israel are themselves sitting in tiny 20-seat shtibls in Manhattan.
“In Orthodox Haredi institutions, the Upper West Side black hat community plays a central leadership role,” one local leader told me. “And it’s not just because they’re affluent. The average Jews on the West Side are a different breed. One of the things we pride ourselves in on the Upper West Side is that because our kids grow up in the city, they’re much better adjusted to the wider world, because they grow up with non-Jewish neighbors. They don’t grow up narrow-minded. When you’re open-minded, you can think big, about the community’s needs.”
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.