What is it like when an Orthodox Jewish community begins to expand into neighboring communities?

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Answered by: Christine, An Expert in the Judaism - General Category
"They're coming ... you'll see," said my boss.

He was not referring to space aliens but to the Orthodox Jewish community heavily concentrated in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just a short distance from my home in heavily African-American Clinton Hill.

Clinton Hill at that time was a different place. A white woman was still a rare sight in the elevators and courtyards of the apartment complex where I lived. A man emerging from his apartment down the hall from mine one morning took one look at me and said only, "Uh oh." I knew the rest: My rent will go up. The bodegas I patronize will soon be replaced with unfamiliar coffee shops and boutiques. More and more of my friends and neighbors will be priced out of their homes and leave, until the day comes when I will no longer be comfortable here myself even if I can afford to stay.

Of course, I was not usually greeted that way; most of my neighbors were so welcoming and friendly that I was inspired to become more friendly myself. But I understood, and still understand, that man's feelings, especially now that a new round of neighborhood change is taking place as my boss had predicted.

Flushing Avenue had long served as the de facto boundary line between the Orthodox Jewish community on 'their' side and the African-American one on 'our' side; there was little spillover. I knew from my boss and others that Orthodox families had started to cross the boundary line and that new Orthodox synagogues had taken root closer and closer to where I lived; but I did not realize exactly how close until one Friday evening, on my way home from work, I heard the sound of a siren. While I had grown up hearing the occasional fire siren in the suburbs, the sound of a siren not emanating from a police car was unusual in the city, and I realized with a jolt that it was a Shabbat siren, sounded 18 minutes before sundown to warn members of the local Orthodox Jewish community that the Sabbath would soon begin and that they should quickly complete their preparations.

Since then, I, technically an outsider in both communities as a white, non-Orthodox Jew, have seen many manifestations of the increased Orthodox presence. Bearded men with yarmulkes and sidelocks are more commonly seen. A recent first occurred when I had to navigate around three women with strollers who took up the entire width of the sidewalk; this was an annoyance, but then again the Shabbat siren is a convenience for me and I find myself hoping that a kosher butcher shop will soon open or that one of the local supermarkets will start stocking kosher meat.

There have been uncomfortable moments, such as when an African-American man burst into my local food store complaining loudly that the Orthodox were snobbish and disrespectful. But no one else present joined him in his tirade and eventually he completed his purchases and left. For myself I was left thinking about all the ways I could identify both with this man and with those he was referring to, and hoping that eventually he would see that the Orthodox community, like his own community, is just that -- a community, composed of individuals but also bound together by social conventions that they are not at liberty to discard.

Perhaps my fellow shoppers already understood this or perhaps they simply disagreed with this one person's way of expressing his feelings; but in any case, I felt a sense of hope that tolerance would ultimately prevail.

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