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How One Funeral and 2 Dead Men Walking Herald Epic Shift on the Jewish Lower East Side

There was more than one corpse in the sanctuary of the Bialystoker Synagogue on the day that Heshy Jacob died.

The July 23 funeral for the Lower East Side’s last Jewish power broker drew rabbis, politicians and real estate developers to the imposing stone building just off Grand Street that serves as an anchor for what’s left of the neighborhood’s Orthodox community.

The afternoon funeral filled the sanctuary, and onlookers crowded the closed street outside. One son of the great Lower East Side sage Rabbi Moshe Feinstein spoke; another was in attendance. “I do not believe that the Lower East Side will ever again be the same,” eulogized Marvin Jacob, Heshy Jacob’s brother.

There was a feeling of finality to the proceedings as the crowd spilled out into the street to follow a parade of Hatzalah ambulances slowly carrying Jacob’s body down the block out of the neighborhood. It was one last show of power for a man who relished his role as an old-fashioned neighborhood boss. “We put in time and effort for the people,” he once told the Forward. “It’s not that we simply are despots.”

The sense that afternoon that Jacob’s death marked something weightier for the city than the passing of one man was spurred, in part, by the two specters who haunted the proceedings; cronies of the deceased who continue to walk the Lower East Side, despite their political lives being definitively over.

Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York State Assembly currently appealing his corruption conviction, was spotted climbing into one of the ambulances that made up Jacob’s funeral procession. And William Rapfogel, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing from the Jewish charity he ran for decades, was seen on the steps of the sanctuary with his wife, Judy Rapfogel, formerly Silver’s chief of staff.

In their day, Heshy, Willie, and Shelly — as they were known in the neighborhood — dominated politics on the Lower East Side. With Silver ruling Albany, Rapfogel cultivating city officials as head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and Jacob holding down the neighborhood, the trio fought to preserve the Jewish community where they grew up. For decades they held off a city redevelopment plan that would have brought new low-income housing into the neighborhood, while bolstering the institutions and social services that kept their community intact.

They fought not for the pre-industrial fantasy of pushcarts and pickles and bathtubs full of carp which persists in the American imagination, but for the Lower East Side of the Bialystoker Synagogue, with its beautiful stained-glass windows; for Feinstein’s old yeshiva, Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem; for the Jews sticking it out in the Grand Street co-ops and the tiny shtiblekh and yeshivas tucked into old buildings up and down East Broadway.

Now, in the course of a few short years, all three men have been swept from the stage. They leave behind a troubled neighborhood. The board of the Bialystoker Synagogue is at war with itself. The controversial sale of a not-for-profit old-age home down the block has reportedly drawn attention from federal and state regulators. And there is a battle brewing among the neighborhood’s synagogues that threatens to break apart what’s left of the old-fashioned communal cohesion that once defined the Jewish Lower East Side.

That battle started just days before Jacob’s death, when 13 local rabbis, including the rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue and both sons of Moshe Feinstein, sent a letter to the Stanton Street Shul effectively threatening excommunication.

Stanton Street, a 123-year-old congregation that’s barely an eight-minute walk north from Bialystoker, sits toward the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum, while Bialystoker and the Feinsteins are more traditional. In early June, Stanton Street and another nearby synagogue hosted a gay Orthodox group called Eshel at Stanton Street and the Orthodox establishment of the Lower East Side objected. Citing what they called Eshel’s “demands that we change the Torah’s timeless standards to accord with prevalent secular attitudes,” the Feinstein brothers, the Bialystoker Synagogue’s rabbi and the other Lower East Side rabbis wrote that Stanton Street had “chosen to associate our community with an organization which we cannot consider Orthodox.”

There, they drew a sharp line. “No Jewish institution that allies itself with such a group can rightfully claim to be Orthodox,” the rabbis wrote.

For Stanton Street’s members, the letter was a slap in the face. “It was upsetting,” said Rebecca Honig-Friedman, the synagogue’s president, who still lives in same Lower East Side co-op where she grew up. “It’s upsetting anytime to experience censure in that way, and… anytime people choose to create divisions in the community.”

In an email to the Forward, the rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue, Zvi David Romm, said that the letter to Stanton Street came only after private efforts to stop the Eshel event were “rebuffed.” He said that Bialystoker and Stanton Street have “always maintained a good relationship.”

The sting of the Lower East Side rabbis’ rebuke to Stanton Street was particularly painful because the old stereotypes about the neighborhood, at least in some ways, have it right: The Lower East Side is less like the big city where it happens to be located, and more like a very small town somewhere in Eastern Europe. A big-city Jew doesn’t care much about what the rabbi at the synagogue down the block thinks of his synagogue. He probably doesn’t know the name of the rabbi at the synagogue down the block. The Lower East Side is different. The Lower East Side is a tiny village, and even if a Lower East Side Jew doesn’t belong to the Bialystoker Synagogue, he still feels its influence.

That was clear at a bus stop on East Broadway on a recent Friday afternoon, where young parents were retrieving excited campers from a summer program put on by the Educational Alliance.

A settlement house founded a few years before the Stanton Street Shul by 19th-century urban do-gooders, the Educational Alliance exists today in part as a social service agency for the diverse communities of the Lower East Side, and in part as a Jewish community center for the sorts of Lower East Side Jews who are unlikely to attend the Bialystoker Synagogue. On Jewish holidays, the Educational Alliance draws hundreds of Jews from the Lower East Side and its environs, neighbors who may have moved to the area for its Jewish history but aren’t members of the small clique of institutions that Heshy and Willie and Shelly represented.

Shock of the New: The Mayor of New York unveiled this potential plan for the Lower East Side, in 2013. Image by nyc mayor's office

Yet amid the happy young campers calling for attention after their overnight in Staten Island, the Educational Alliance parents at the East Broadway bus stop knew exactly who Heshy Jacob was.

Lisa Arbisser, speaking briefly before three kids pulled her away, said that her part of the Lower East Side Jewish community doesn’t really have a leader. Of Jacob, she said, “It’s not a simple situation.”

Heshy Jacob was, strictly speaking, a building manager with a bunch of sidelines. His company managed the Grand Street co-ops, the middle-class housing developments built by the garment unions in the first half of the 20th century. But Jacob also ran the local Jewish charity on the Lower East Side, called the United Jewish Council; helped found Hatzalah, and had a major hand in the leadership of the Bialystoker Synagogue.

“If you’re the person that [if] somebody has a problem he goes to [you] day and night [and] you take the time and effort to help them, then they think you’re in charge,” Jacob told the Forward in 2013.

Jacob and his allies came of political age in the 1960s and ’70s, when New York City was in crisis. “You had really crumbling communities throughout Manhattan and some of the outer boroughs,” said Jessica Loeser, a former Lower East Side district leader who was a staffer in Silver’s assembly office. It “forged a caliber of leadership… that was a product of their time. They took control of their communities, they made them safer, [and] they had a role in the development of their communities that was not afforded in previous times.”

In that role, Jacob and others were not always seen as friendly to competing ethnic groups. Outside of his community, Jacob was perhaps best known for staunch opposition, over decades, to the construction of low-income housing in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a vast tract of the Lower East Side that’s lain fallow for nearly five decades amid opposition to redevelopment from Jacob and his allies. He also managed the gradual privatization of the co-ops, creating windfalls for many of the original residents while setting the stage for the current skyrocketing apartment prices there.

“I think it’s a noble cause to want to grow your community and maintain it and protect it,” Loeser said. “He didn’t live in a vacuum, and he had partners in other communities.”

The decline of Willie, Heshy and Shelly’s power didn’t come suddenly. Demographics in the neighborhood have been shifting fast for years. A stark sign came in 2009, when the neighborhood’s City Council member, Alan Gerson, a Jewish lawyer endorsed by Silver, lost to Margaret Chin, an Asian-American activist. In the years since, there’s been a real estate retrenchment, as many local Jewish communal institutions have sought to divest themselves from the area. The Bialystoker Nursing Home on East Broadway, an active nursing home until 2011, is now in the hands of developers, while the Bialystoker Synagogue and its neighbor, the Home of the Sages of Israel, are embroiled in a complex and controversial deal to sell property and air rights to another developer.

Membership at the few active synagogues in the neighborhood aren’t yet following the same trend. Today, the Bialystoker Synagogue has 300 member families. That hasn’t changed in four decades, according to Romm, who says a 1978 synagogue gala book lists the same number of members. The Stanton Street Shul, with 100 member families, has grown recently, but, according to Honig-Friedman, the current size is within its normal historic range.

While Stanton Street’s liberal Orthodox orientation could make it a magnet for the kinds of young Jewish families now swelling uptown neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Inwood, the legacy of the neighborhood’s old-line Jewish leadership has laid down some structural impediments that make it hard for young families to stay. Since Moshe Feinstein opposed the use of an eruv, a boundary to allow observant Jews to carry goods within their neighborhood on the Sabbath, there is no eruv on the Lower East Side. And since housing costs are high thanks in part to Jacob’s privatization of the co-ops, many families are priced out.

“The neighborhood, for various reasons, is not somewhere people can necessarily stay when they have families, so we lose a lot of people to the suburbs,” Honig Friedman said.

None of that will immediately change without Heshy and Shelly and Willie. But as the three fade from the scene, others are advocating new thinking about Jewish leadership on the Lower East Side. Power is fracturing after decades of concentration. It many ways, that means that the neighborhood is starting to look a bit more like any other Jewish neighborhood, and less like a tiny village outside of time.

There are still no non-Orthodox synagogues on the Lower East Side itself, nor is there an eruv or a single kosher restaurant. But the community is widening in other ways. “There’s a Jewish life that is felt… by the non-Orthodox” in the neighborhood, said Paul Shapiro, a musician and composer who lives in one of the co-ops. Shapiro belongs to a Reform synagogue just north of the Lower East Side, but he finds much in the neighborhood itself speaks to his own Jewish experience, however distinct it may be from the Orthodoxy of the neighborhood’s old-line Jewish leadership. “Programming at the Educational Alliance, the Museum at Eldridge Street,” Shapiro said, rattling off the landmarks of the non-Orthodox Lower East Side. “The abundance of wonderful Jewish food, like Russ & Daughter’s cafe or Katz’s or The Pickle Guys or Kossar’s Bialys.”

The Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center runs Jewish culture programs and a Jewish pre-school. The Lower East Side Conservancy has preserved the neighborhood’s crumbling old synagogues, while the Museum at Eldridge Street and the Tenement Museum care for the neighborhood’s history. It’s a different sort of Lower East Side than the one for which Heshy Jacob fought. But it might be essential to the neighborhood’s Jewish future.

The old-line Orthodox leadership “loved and cared about the Lower East Side and the Jewish Lower East Side, and they wanted to make it as strong and healthy a place as possible,” said Paul Newell, a Stanton Street Shul member who is running for New York State Assembly against Silver’s handpicked successor, Alice Cancel, in the September Democratic primaries. “Today, if we want to have a strong Jewish Lower East Side, it requires a different approach. It requires a more inclusive, broader view of what the Lower East Side needs.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis

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