Drinking in the Changing Northeast

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With the closing of local shops and Jewish-owned businesses, it’s only natural to ponder the neighborhood’s future as one of Philadelphia’s traditional Jewish strongholds.

Following the recent closing of Ott’s Camera shop on Castor Avenue, the latest in a procession of Jewish-owned businesses — including Singers Appliance and the Casino Deli — to shut its doors in Northeast Philadelphia, it is only natural to ponder the neighborhood’s future as one of Philadelphia’s traditional Jewish strongholds.
But for those who’d prefer to look at Jewish life in Northeast Philadelphia as a glass half-filled, there’s plenty to drink. Congregations of Shaare Shamayim says its membership continues to grow. Offering the option of either traditional or egalitarian services in separate rooms, executive director Jacques Lurie reports that both offerings pack the room. In addition, the number of children signing up for the synagogue’s preschool is approaching 150.
Part of that expansion comes from the Russian and Eastern European Jewish community, which refers to itself as “new Americans.” They consist largely of an older generation, which came to this country to escape persecutionhaving had to hide their Judaism and had to overcome language and other barriers. While many of their children have moved to the suburbs, their ties to the old neighborhood remain strong.
In conjunction with this, KleinLife has helped bridge the gap between generations. With a number of programs available to seniors, the Russian community and younger adults, there’s a healthy mix. Plus, programs like Meals on Wheels, JRA Food Distribution and others — in part funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which provides transportation both for members and for the volunteers serving them — make sure there’s enough food for all. And for seniors, it’s usually free.
Don’t forget the Orthodox Jewish community, either. Primarily focused in Rhawnhurst — once considered the heart of the Northeast — they have no plans to leave. Further, with a $12,500 grant from the Jewish Federation to the Northeast Coalition for Jewish Life and Learning, they’ve been advertising to promote the area as a low-cost housing alternative to families in other cities.
Finally, there’s the Castor Gardens Civic Association, a group of concerned citizens who are working to create harmony among not only Jews, but other ethnic groups, which comprise the neighborhood. They find sitting down to break bread — and what could be more Jewish than that? — is the best way to talk things out and devise a working strategy moving forward.
Still, there are those who see that same glass as half-empty; for them, there is plenty of cause for concern. In addition to the loss of Jewish-owned businesses, there is the slow-moving existential crisis for a number of synagogues in the area, despite the successes at Shaare Shamayim and in the Orthodox community.
Speak to the people who remain, like Alan Mutchnick, co-owner of Jack’s Deli in Bells Corner, where people used to line up out the door when the Orleans movie theater let out late, and more granular image of demographic shift comes into focus.
“It was about 90 percent Jewish about 10 years ago,” said Mutchnick, who knows that as lunchtime approaches, thecrowds won’t be the same. “Now it’s maybe 10 percent — the exact opposite.
“It tears me apart,” he added. “It tears our family apart, and also tears apart the memories of the people who used to come here when they were young. Now they come here and say ‘Oh, my God, you used to be open ‘til 2 in the morning and I used to come here for waffles and ice cream after the movies and there was a line out the door.’ It was the place to be.”
Not anymore. In fact, if not for a strong catering business, Jack’s likely would’ve gone the way of so many of those fallen businesses. Mutchnick holds no animosity against the folks who moved away and no longer frequent the place.
He says it’s simply the way things are. “If you go back 50 years, you’ll see where we are now,” explained Mutchnick. “The majority of those people who lived here and had their businesses here are dead. Their children went to college and then either met their spouse and moved away or, if they were looking for their own homes in the area, they certainly weren’t looking in the Northeast.
“They went to Cherry Hill or Dresher or Plymouth Meeting or Huntingdon Valley or Merion or Bucks County. I don’t think there was anything that could’ve been done, because the most important thing was the pilgrimage of the people. Once they left, people who don’t really buy what Jewish clientele bought came in.”
Some of Mitch Lipkin’s new clientele do buy his product. He says Muslims like the fact that Lipkin’s Bakery is kosher, while Christians go for his fresh rye bread and challah.
The fact that Lipkin’s has lost much of its Jewish identity seldom even gets acknowledged. “It was a very dense Jewish population here,” recalled Lipkin, who opened the bakery with his dad, Abraham, 40 years ago, whose own father was a baker, too. “Returning war vets seemed to congregate in the Northeast and their children grew up here. Some of them stayed. Some of them left. Northeast High School used to have a big Jewish population. I don’t think it does now.
“We still deliver to area synagogues, but now there’s only three or four” left, he explained. “The Orthodox won’t come in here because I’m not shomer Shabbos. There used to be so many more synagogues.”
While developments at Shaare Shamayim and at synagogues within the Orthodox community are encouraging, others institutions among that dwindling number are simply trying to cling to life. “The neighborhood is changing and people don’t seem to be affiliated with synagogues,” said Marcie Spiller, president of Ner Zedek, which, despite having merged with six congregations — Adath Zion, Beth Uziel, Northeast Boulevard Park, B’rith Kodesh B’zrach Israel and Fox Chase JCC — has only 201 members, mostly in their 70s and older. “There are not many young Jewish families in the neighborhood. I’ve been told there are groups of Jewish families moving into the area, but my congregation hasn’t seen them.”
Neither have officials at Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai, which recently celebrated its 90th anniversary. With an older congregation and no infusion of youth in sight, no one there is confident the synagogue will live to 100. “Right now, we’re holding on,” said vice president Bea Streitfeld, who says they’re down to 90 members, with rarely more than 25 or so able to get to services. “Most of us want to stay, but the reality is, young people are not coming. No children are coming for lessons or Bar Mitzvahs, because we don’t have a religious school. If it continues this way, my opinion would be that there’s no way we can survive.”
That doesn’t seem to be the problem at Shaare Shamayim. “Since 2008, synagogues have suffered financial-wise — and Northeast Philadelphia is no different,” acknowledged Lurie, who’s been there 13 years. “Are there challenges in Northeast Philadelphia? Absolutely. But I’ll put the health of my synagogue up against most.”
The health of Mi-Lady Bra Boutique, though, Marcy Druker Cohn’s business, is what drove the former Northeast resident into the suburbs. She’s never looked back. “After he died, my landlord’s son threw me out after 30 years,” said Druker Cohn, who set up shop in Jenkintown. “I went out of there kicking and screaming. But the change in the neighborhood was actually was a good change for me. Other businesses did not change — they were trying to draw only the same clientele — but I was moving on, changing with the times. They saw it. They just didn’t do anything about it. I got out in time because that’s what everybody who came to this store when I closed the other one said to me.”
In the interim, there’s a new Northeast, one more heavily assimilated: Jews, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Brazilian and what the Russian/Eastern European contingent refers to as “New American.” In other words, a true melting pot. In essence, you have lot of people who share middle class values and want the best possible education for their children and safer streets at the same time.
“There’s still a Jewish remnant population in place,” said Philadelphia city councilman Mark Cohen, one of the CGCA’s leading advocates. “There’s also a mix of races — black, Hispanic, Indian, Asian — among others.
“I have been aware of the pattern of neighborhood change for a while. I’ve lived with ‘white flight’ all my life and ‘Jewish flight.’ I’m pleased it’s slowed down.”
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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