Over the past four and a half years, over 300 families from Brooklyn have traded their daily view of concrete and bustling streets for the grassy backyards and open skies of Staten Island.
Necessity was the main impetus – Boro Park homes were simply too expensive, said Mrs. Esti Stiel, a former resident of Boro Park who moved to Staten Island with her family this past Pesach. “For a million dollars, you [could] maybe purchase an old, semi-attached on the very outskirts.”
Two chassidim from the Skver and Ger communities in Boro Park – Rabbi Menachem Zonszejn and Mr. Sruli Lauber – got the ball rolling in 2014 when they called Jewish real estate agents Chunie and Shaindy Spiegel of Spiegel Realty, LLC to discuss the possibility of moving a large number of families from Boro Park to Staten Island.
At the meetings, Spiegel said he heard some “real horror stories,” with some Brooklyn residents saying “they had to put the kids to sleep in the kitchen because there was no more bedroom space!”
Over a series of meetings, they discussed logistics as well as Staten Island’s many attractive features, including affordable housing, proximity to Boro Park (30 minutes) and Monsey and Lakewood (under an hour), and special education government services (similar to those offered in Boro Park as both areas are part of New York City).
Many were initially afraid to take the leap, though. “People don’t want to leave where they grew up…their family members, schools, the shuls on every corner, and having everything you need in walking distance,” said Stiel.
Mr. Spiegel said Rabbi Tzvi Pollack – rav of Congregation Agudas Shomrei Hadas in Willowbrook, Staten Island, and a chassid himself – along with his son, Rabbi Chaim Yehudah Pollack, was instrumental in helping families move and adjust. “They are very sought-after individuals, who are so warm and friendly, and draw a lot of people in,” he said. The Pollacks held a tisch every Friday night, and for the first few years when people started moving in, Rebbetzin Pollack held a “women’s night out.”
For several years, the market was moving so fast the Spiegels’ phones were “ringing off the hook.” Sometimes “there was a listing on Wednesday and by Sunday it was gone!” said Ben Radner, a Litvish Jew from Flatbush now living in Manor Heights, Staten Island.
Rabbi Tzvi Pollack tried to ensure the community stayed unified, telling “frum realtors working on the project that if one sees that the other’s client is bidding on a house, the others shouldn’t compete and should step away,” said Mrs. Spiegel. “It wasn’t just about money. We wanted more than that – we wanted to make this work, and help make the new families happy,” said Mr. Spiegel.
The chassidim settled primarily in three areas: Westerleigh (about 30 new families), Willowbrook (about 200 new families), and Manor Heights (a previously completely non-Jewish area, now with 100 new Jewish families).
Although the majority of migrants were chassidic, “a small handful of those from the yeshivish community have come to Willowbrook as well,” said Mr. Jeremy Goldzhal, a mortgage broker at JG Funding and Joe Pisa and a member of the Young Israel of Staten Island.
Westerleigh is the more financially reasonable option because the homes are older. “A typical three-bedroom in Westerly would be around $500,000-600,000,” said Mrs. Spiegel.
Willowbrook is around $70,000-100,000 pricier as it has newer homes and is more a popular area with an already firmly established Jewish community. Initially, the chassidim only wanted to live Willowbrook, but when two Bobov brothers bought property in Manor Heights, more from the community joined them, explained Mrs. Spiegel.
Pricing in Manor Heights is mixed, depending on the size and age of the house plus the addition of a basement. “A detached two-family house in Manor Heights could be in the $700,000 range,” said Spiegel.
Although some frum families are still moving to Staten Island, the pace has slackened. As a result, though, more homes are available and the prices have come down, which is “very important,” said Mrs. Spiegel. “When the influx began, prices were rising, and it was defeating the purpose because people were coming to Staten Island because it was affordable!”
Can Staten Island ever become a bustling Jewish neighborhood like Boro Park? “If this is to happen…it would take a very long time to have shuls and grocery stores and yeshivas on every corner,” said Mr. Spiegel. And realistically “there’s only existing homes and not so much empty land to put up new homes, so the influx is going to cap at some point.”
Mr. Spiegel added that people are not really looking to leave Boro Park: “A lot of the families that came was really the families that needed housing the most.”
But Staten Island certainly has burgeoned Jewishly. The three communities now boast 10 shuls, said Mrs. Stiel, compared to the five or six that existed previously. “A Belzer recently settled here and opened up a grocery store in Willowbrook, a new shteibel just opened up in Westerleigh, a grocery store opened up on the street that divides Manor Heights and Willowbrook… People are ready to set up shop now,” said Mr. Spiegel.
Because some chassidish women don’t drive, a private shuttle has been set up that travels between Boro Park and Staten Island every two hours. “There are tons of texting groups. People will write, ‘I’m driving to the supermarket – who needs a ride?’ or ‘I’m going to pick up my kids from school – do your kids need a pickup? Everyone really helps each other settle in,” said Stiel.
The existing Staten Island Jewish community has needed to adjust too. Not everyone is happy. “Willowbrook was like living upstate all year long. People could walk around on Shabbos wearing whatever they wanted – suits, shorts, whatever. Some people feel that with all the chassidim moving in, that freeness is changing, and some don’t like that,” said Goldzal. Others, though, are “very happy” with the influx, he said, because it is bringing more Jewish life to the area.
Many informal pre-schools and gannim have been set up in people’s homes in the last few years. Older children, however, are still bussed to schools in Brooklyn. “The Skver, Ger, and Bobov communities have their own buses that go directly to their yeshivas in Boro Park,” said Mr. Siegel – and the travel time is not that much greater than it is for Brooklyn families. “Even when we lived in Brooklyn,” Mrs. Stiel said, “it took my kids 30 minutes or so to get to school because of traffic within Brooklyn. It ends up being the same amount of time from Staten Island.”
“Staten Island is a wonderful community,” said Radner. “The community enjoys the conveniences and quiet of a suburban life, and is still close enough to the city to be able to commute to Brooklyn and/or Manhattan.”
“I always tell people,” said Stiel, “that although the move was done of out pure necessity, we love it here!” Adjusting to such a different environment was hard for her children, but Stiel says she tells them, “You’ll thank me in 20 years when you’ll have a spacious, frum community to raise your own family in.”