By E.B. SOLOMONT, Staff Reporter of the Sun
When Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and his wife, Lisa Exler, decided to move with their daughter to Washington Heights from the Upper West Side, they resolved to bring some of their friends with them.
Several weeks ago, they hosted a meeting at their home, drawing nearly 30 Upper West Side neighbors as well as friends from Washington Heights, who were invited to discuss the merits of living in the area. A few weeks later, the couple organized a walking tour of Washington Heights that included stops at supermarkets, parks, and bakeries.
“What we sort of tried to do intentionally was round up people who were looking to leave the Upper West Side anyway, and organize them in a way in which we could look together as a group and move semi-en-masse to another neighborhood,” Rabbi Kaunfer said.
The idea came to him, he said, after seeing friends who were priced out of the Upper West Side move to parts of New Jersey, Brooklyn, and neighborhoods in Manhattan, such as the Lower East Side. For Rabbi Kaunfer — who in 2001 helped to found a new Jewish congregation on the Upper West side, Kehilat Hadar — Washington Heights represented a more affordable place to live and an opportunity to develop a community in a neighborhood once populated by large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria.
Currently, Washington Heights has a large Orthodox Jewish presence, including students and graduates of Yeshiva University, but the neighborhood is changing. The Fort Tryon Jewish Center, a traditional and Conservative-leaning congregation established in 1938, is experiencing something of a revival, according to its executive director, Jack Green.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the synagogue had about 600 members. That number dwindled over the years, although the synagogue experienced a surge in membership last year. It now boasts 200 members. “We probably added 40% of our members, and we are adding members on a regular monthly basis,” Mr. Green said.
This spring, the congregation began a million-dollar renovation that Mr. Green described as a “soup to nuts job.” The congregation also is actively searching for a new rabbi to replace its longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Jacob Goldberg, who passed away several years ago.
One Upper West Side resident who attended Rabbi Kaunfer’s meeting, Benjamin Thomases, recently closed on a Washington Heights apartment he will share with his fiancée, Galli Aizenman. The couple, who plan to marry in September, had been thinking about moving to a space where they would be able “to set up a real home together,” Mr. Thomases, who works for the city, said. After considering apartments in Brooklyn and Washington Heights, he said, they chose the latter because of Rabbi Kaunfer and the expectation that he will plant the seeds for a vibrant egalitarian Jewish community there. “We decided to be pioneers to some extent,” Mr. Thomases said.
Some members of the group are sharing a real estate agent who was referred to them by Rabbi Kaunfer. “He’s pretty much told me about a bunch of friends,” the agent, Matthew Bizzarro, who works for Stein-Perry Real Estate, said.
Mr. Bizzarro, who has lived in Washington Heights for about nine years, said there is growing interest in the neighborhood. “A lot of young families have been migrating to our neighborhood because you get twice as much space for half the money,” he said.
Rabbi Kaunfer, however, is the first to acknowledge there are obstacles to his plan. “I don’t think we’re at a point where everyone is signing on the dotted line and ready to move,” he said. “But once my wife and I move there, we’ll be more aggressive in inviting people up to come visit us.”