Photo Credit: Rabbi Yossi Overlander
Overlander family at a sefer Torah dedication earlier this year.

The spirit of Jewish Brownsville may once again be infused with new life. Since 2017, Orthodox families, mostly Chabad, have purchased homes with the intention of revitalizing the area, its multicultural traditions, and Jewish institutions. After taking a “deep dive” – interviewing residents and researching the area’s history – it’s clear how recent changes have set the stage for a viable, incrementally growing Orthodox presence there.

Brownsville, in the far-eastern section of Brooklyn, began in the 1600s as Dutch farmlands. Then settlers from England, Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere built businesses and constructed homes in an expansive area of eastern and northern Brooklyn, which included Flatbush, Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York, Cypress Hills, New Lots, and Canarsie. From the mid-1600s, a few Dutch-Brazilian Sephardic Jewish refugees, traders, and merchants resided in Flatbush/New Lots. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Bavarian German Jews emigrated in larger numbers to what had been a predominantly Anglo-European area. In the 1880s, Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms came en masse to the U.S. Those whose port of entry was New York passed through Ellis Island and generally settled in the Lower East Side. From there, many chose Brownsville to be their home.


Between the mid-1880s and the mid-1920s (after which immigration quotas were reduced), a vibrant Brownsville hub developed. It was a booming community in the interwar period and thereafter, one that thrived spiritually and culturally, if not always materially, for Jews. My grandparents, who emigrated from Europe, moved to Brownsville about 1908. They wanted to escape the decrepit Lower East Side tenements, where their older children were born, and infant daughter died. My father, the youngest of ten, was born at home on Herzl Street, nearly a generation later. This was but one of my family’s many Brownsville domiciles.

For these “transplants” and scores of others, Brownsville was a steppingstone to upward mobility, a buffer between tenements with their “greeners” and the “classier” neighborhoods. Alfred Kazin’s moving memoir, A Walker in the City, provides a window into Brownsville’s unique sights, smells, and Jewish flavors; the contrasting focus of Alter F. Landesman’s Brownsville is on community institutions and their founders. Kazin recalls that prosperous residents, named “allrightniks” by the Brownsville locals who envied them, moved to Crown Heights.

Marching through the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, during Torah dedication and L’ag Ba’Omer parade, 2023.

Chabad’s Brownsville foothold there began with Rabbi Israel Jacobson, who led the Anshei Bobroisk synagogue. A shliach of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, he entered the U.S. in 1925 and became one of the first Lubavitcher emissaries here. Chabad was one of many groups that flourished during Brownsville’s heyday, which lasted until the late 1960s. Then, when urban crime spiraled, incomes rose, and housing alternatives grew in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, most of the community’s Jews exited. Their former presence, detectable in stained glass windows, Magen Davids, and outlines of mezuzahs visible in doorways, was partially obscured by newly adorned churches to which the synagogues were sold.

Fast forward to today and the question becomes: Why would Orthodox Jews, primarily Chabad, move into what for decades was known as a high crime area? It didn’t take long in my conversation with them for Rabbis Levi Vogel and Yossi Overlander, local residents active in the “Brownsville Anash,” to dispel the “high crime” characterization of the neighborhood. (Anash is an acronym for “anshei shlomeinuliterally, “men of our place” – often viewed as a chassidic fraternity.)

They said that the streets are lined with one- or two-family homes where mostly older, churchgoing families, but some couples with younger children live. Rabbi Vogel, a board member of the Anash, explained that from the late 1970s through the 1980s, there were many hi-rise, densely populated buildings in Brownsville. The government then decided to build small one-family homes, whose owners were working-class people of color, mostly from the Caribbean. Currently, there is one non-Chabad Orthodox family, and, Rabbi Vogel “guesstimates,” about 5% white, non-Jewish residents in the area.

Children on Purim in Brownsville, 2023.

The main motivator for the Chabad families’ move is affordability. The cost of a 1,600 square foot one-family home in Brownsville runs about $550,000. A comparable home in nearby East Flatbush or Remsen Village, which have experienced a major Orthodox influx in the last several years, would cost about $750,000. Compare these with a $1,000,000, one-floor condo in Crown Heights. In Brownsville, a two-family house costs about $800,000. In East Flatbush, one would pay about $1,000,000. A comparable two-family house in Crown Heights costs about $1,400,000 or $1,500,000.

In addition to reduced housing costs, Brownsville homes have gardens, an appealing feature for families with children accustomed to asphalt sidewalks. There are also well-maintained parks nearby, and in 2021 the city renovated a running track. Throughout this area, there is positive interaction between people of color and whites. All the residents take great pride in their homes and community. It is quiet and non-violent, and the Orthodox and African American children ride their scooters concurrently. At one point concerned residents stopped a potentially raucous block party, organized by an outside group, from taking place on 12 consecutive Saturdays. After three weeks, homeowners signed a petition to stop the events.

Gentrification is a word Rabbi Overlander clearly dislikes, and when probed, both he and Rabbi Vogel say “no,” it’s not happening in Brownsville. There are no high-end stores where necessities are unaffordable, and no tenants forced from their homes by unscrupulous landlords to ease in wealthier tenants. A small percentage of homes are being sold to Orthodox Jews. Word of mouth spreads, and families, who come to see the homes, the parks, and other resources, decide to buy. Rabbi Vogel is confident that last year’s trend, in which five families moved from Crown Heights, will continue. (Today, some 16 Orthodox families live in Brownsville.) One non-Chabad family moved from Queens, and Rabbi Vogel doesn’t envision an exclusively Chabad community.

L’ag B’Aomer parade, Brownsville, 2023.

There are no Jewish-owned establishments. Although Brownsville is in proximity to Crown Heights, there is a seven to eight block radius that is totally disconnected from it. Children take buses to school; Only Rabbi Overlander, principal of Ohr Menachem, a Crown Heights elementary school, drives his children there. Rabbi Vogel is employed part-time in chinuch but is primarily a businessman.

There is neither a mikvah nor a community/shul rabbi yet in Brownsville, but the Anash fundraises to those ends. It takes 30 minutes to walk to 770 Eastern Parkway and half the time to reach the smaller shuls, so multiple options for davening exist, but there is a fully equipped Brownsville basement shul with a new sefer Torah, dedicated by the Overlander family. Rabbi Avraham Schtroks, of the first Orthodox family to buy in Brownsville in 2017, owns the home and rents the shul to the Anash at a discount. There is a fund, Brownsville Anash Corp., where residents’ donations defray overhead and other expenses. The shul offers shiurim, holiday events, and, once or twice a month, programs for women and children.

Restoring a Jewish presence in Brownsville is a slow process. Given economic realities and the potential to build a well-resourced community close to the Chabad heartland, the odds of doing so seem favorable. With the help of a small, cohesive core of dedicated householders paving the way, it’s likely to be an achievable goal.


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