Did you know that between 1880 and 1920 more than 3 million Jews immigrated to the United States from lands across Central and Eastern Europe? It’s a staggering number when you think about it. From the Lower East Side and to all points in New York City to far beyond the Hudson River, American Jewry has been an ever-evolving project in building communities everywhere we have gathered.
Soon after arriving, Jews established schools, charitable institutions, hospitals, settlement houses and cemeteries; activists built the labor movement and were Americanized in public schools; built modern seminaries to train a new generation of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis; and were integral to the political and financial support for the Zionist enterprise in the historic Land of Israel. In total, American Jews for the past century have been integral to the business, social and civic infrastructure of this great city.
As we Jews modernized, so too did our relationship to tradition. The establishment of Israel as a homeland created a new kind of secular Jew; higher education enabled Jews to enter the American workplace and social fabric at all levels of society; and today, Jews identify with a range of Jewish values in varieties of ways that have made us truly pluralistic.
Fifteen years ago in Tribeca when a small group of families came together to found JCP, they wove into the rich fabric of Jewish history another such pluralistic gathering and did, in their own unique and creative way what generations of Jews have always done: they raised schools, building an Early Childhood Center, Hebrew School Program and B’nai Mitzvah program; they celebrated together Shabbat, holidays and other happy occasions; they learned and served as families and adults; and were there for one another at the critical junctures of life from birth to marriage, from sickness to death.
Growing up in Milwaukee, a smaller city than New York but where the closeness and connectivity of life truly mattered, that fabric of Jewish life was essential to my identity. And over the course of this first month, I have met people with similar stories who have come to New York from Detroit, Montreal, California, Louisville, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv and many more such places across the globe. And if it’s true that New York City is really the sum of its parts, it’s unique neighborhoods, then the Jewish community of Lower Manhattan where JCP was founded fifteen years ago is as essential as any Jewish community has ever been.
At one of the end-of-year celebrations for our Hebrew School Project, I was talking to a few parents and learning about their own deep rivers of family narratives that run deep in Lower Manhattan. “My grandfather owned a candy store on Rivington Street,” one said, while another chimed in, “And my grandfather sold mushrooms to all the finest restaurants in the city.” The past is prologue, as they say. When my friends Niki and Josh Federman opened the Russ and Daughters Cafe, marking the fourth generation of this inspiring family’s business on the Lower East Side, they invented a new sandwich called the Super Heebster. (It’s whitefish salad on toast topped with wasabi infused roe and pea shoots.) Niki’s dad Mark asked, “What the hell is that?” Turns out it’s one of the hottest tickets on the menu. People literally feel Jewish eating it!
There’s something very “JCP” about that. So it makes sense that these deep dives into the past with an eye toward the future is all just a few blocks past Broadway, walking through Five Points and then Chinatown where Jewish history comes plainly into view. There’s the Sons of Israel Kalwarie synagogue on Pike Street, now a Buddhist temple, where Judah Magnes, one of the founders of Hebrew University in Jerusalem spoke. My grandmother-in-law Sadie was the first American in her large family to be born here in New York and her third floor bedroom was right next to the shul. It was an Orthodox synagogue and bringing Magnes, a Reform rabbi, was a strong statement. “We wanted to be American, speak English, and dance with women,” one of the leaders said. Well then.
There’s the Jarmolowsky Bank, which made loans to thousands of immigrant Jews, now residential, on East Broadway and right next door to Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese is the Forward Building (also residential) where the most widely read Yiddish newspaper was published. The heroes of Socialism and universal human equality and justice, once the Gospel for a generation of immigrant Jews, adorn the facade.
The Forward’s founder, Ab Cahan, famously said he wanted his readers to read in an Americanized Yiddish that would help them become American. It’s no surprise, then, that today the Forward still publishes and is read widely in English, a sign of the ongoing evolution of our Americanness. Deeper in, buildings that now house the Lower East Side’s hippest restaurants, cafes, boutiques and galleries bear the markings of old landsmanschaften, the Jewish charitable clubs that were named for the towns across Europe from where our ancestors migrated. These layers of history reveal so much wisdom to us, passed down through the generations, of Jews being present for one another.
This was, of course, the organizing principle at JCP fifteen years ago we have been, we are and always will be there for you.
And so at this pivotal moment — looking back on the past fifteen years and looking ahead, I want to invite you to become a member of JCP. More than the sum of its extraordinary parts — from Early Childhood to Hebrew School to Youth and Project Bet; from Shabbat and holidays to acts of lovingkindness at critical junctures in our lives — we are a community of families and individuals dedicated to learning and giving, to celebrating and making meaning, and for creatively adapting our beloved and ancient traditions to the demands and exigencies of our current generation.
The remarkable achievements of Jewish communities throughout the generations teaches us to that as we step along the path of tradition established by those who came before us with with a fearless foot forward into the future, we are exemplars of what is required for us to not just survive but thrive. This notion brings to mind the contrasting impressions between the Spies (sent by Moses to scout out the land of Israel in this week’s Torah portion Shelach Lecha) and his trusted leaders Joshua and Caleb. Where the spies saw insurmountable obstacles to their own new era of Jewish history, claiming the people were like giants and the lowly Israelites were like grasshoppers in their eyes, Joshua and Caleb saw possibility for thriving in new and adaptable ways. The past can imprison us in our negative perceptions of its own dimensions; we Jews have survived when we have remembered and honored those who came before us while stepping, with confidence into what is new and possible.
It’s what Jewish communities have always done, as an ongoing “project” of what it means to be a Jew.
Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.