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Syrian Jewish Community Puts Down Roots on the Upper East Side

 While the overall Jewish population of the Upper East Side has declined in the past decade – from about 65,000 people in 2002 to about 57, 000 in 2011 – a small but thriving Syrian Jewish community has sprung up in the area.
UES Syrian Jewish Community
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UPPER EAST SIDE — Prime Butcher and Baker on the Upper East Side stocks many classic European-Jewish treats including pastrami, kugel and rugelach. Nestled alongside these traditional favorites are dishes with less familiar names such as matbucha, lahmabajin and stuffed yebra: all staples of Syrian cuisine.

The shop’s mix of familiar and exotic offerings reflect a larger change in the Upper East Side Jewish community.

While the overall Jewish population of the neighborhood has declined in the past decade – from about 65,000 people in 2002 to about 57, 000 in 2011 — a small but thriving Syrian Jewish community has sprung up in the area.

The growth has been spurred in large part by the establishment of a Syrian synagogue, the Edmond J. Safra Congregation, in 2003. With the opening of the 65,000 square-foot Safra Community Center slated for later this year, the uptown Syrian community seems poised to expand.

“The Upper East Side had become an alternative to the suburbs,” said Rabbi Elie Abadie, head of the Safra synagogue. “People can move here without sacrificing any of the community involvement or spiritual involvement because we have institutions now that were not here before.”

Abadie has noticed tremendous growth in the community during the past decade. When the synagogue hosted its first service early in 2003, just 35 people attended. A little more than ten years later, Abadie estimates that 350 people regularly attend services at the East 63rd Street location. The synagogue’s membership has grown to include 1500 families.

There are about 12,000 Syrian Jewish households in the New York metro area according to a 2011 demographic study by the UJA-Federation of New York. Half of them are located in Brooklyn, especially in the Syrian strongholds of Flatbush and Bensonhurst. For the first time, the study also noted the presence of a cluster of Syrian Jews on the Upper East Side, but it did not provide any numbers on the community.

Young couples and families account for much of the growth, according to both Abadie and the UJA-Federation. They are drawn to Manhattan for the same reasons as many other young New Yorkers: financial opportunities and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. 

“The new generation wants to be a part of American life,” Abadie said. “They want to be proud, engaged Jews who are also a part of the city and a part of the modern dialogue.”

David Mallach, director of the UJA-Federation's Commission on Jewish People, said that economic changes within the larger Syrian community may also play a role in this geographic shift.  

“The old family business model, particularly in textiles, has declined,” Mallach said. “The younger generation has gone more into finance and business. It’s becoming a more economically diverse community and Manhattan is attractive to them.”

Joey Allaham, a member of the Safra synagogue, moved to Manhattan nine years ago with his young family. Allaham, 38, owns several high-end Kosher restaurants in Manhattan and said that the Upper East Side has many advantages over his former Brooklyn home.

“You wake up in the morning and you have the greatest city in the world at your feet,” he said. “You go five minutes and you have Central Park, the theater, great restaurants.”

His move has also been good for business. A few years ago, the restaurateur noticed something missing in his neighborhood.

“I told my wife, I have to do a Sephardic food shop here so that we don’t have to run back to Brooklyn all of the time,” he said.

That idea turned into Prime Butcher and Baker. Business, Allaham said, has been very good.

The growth of services that cater to the community, like Allahams’ shop, has in turn brought more Syrians to the Upper East Side.

In 2006, Rabbi Abadie realized that many members of his growing congregation were moving back to Brooklyn once their children reached school age. He proposed building a school to make it possible for families to stay in the neighborhood.

Five years later, the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan opened with an early childhood education program. The plan is to eventually grow the school to provide pre-K through 12th grade services. 

The Upper East Side Syrian community will also see its most ambitious initiative yet brought to fruition later this year. The Safra Community Center at East 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue will boast a swimming pool and fitness center, a two-level banquet hall and a kosher café. The building will also house a Sephardic synagogue to cater to all Jewish people who live on the northern edges of the Upper East Side.

The hope is that having access to such amenities will allow people in the community to put down Manhattan roots.

Rabbi Sion Setton heads the Sephardic Congregation Magen David in the West Village. Until recently, he served as the youth coordinator at Safra and said that the Syrian communities on the Upper East Side and in other parts of Manhattan have become less transient.

“It started as temporary, but now people seem to be here to stay,” Setton said.  “There’s a growing Sephardic and Syrian presence in the city and people are moving here to be a part of that.”

The pull of Brooklyn can remain strong, however, even for those who love their new neighborhood.

Leron Elkharrat moved to the Upper East Side three years ago shortly after she got married and has built a strong circle of friends there.

“Many of us are newlywed couples that like to stay in for Shabbat some weekends,” Elkharrat said. “Living just a few blocks away from each other, we have Shabbat meals together and holidays together. It’s great.”

But Elkharrat is not sure what the future will hold.

“I would love to stay on the Upper East Side forever, but I don't know what we will end up doing. Raising a family and buying or renting a bigger apartment in the city is significantly more expensive than it is in Brooklyn, ” she said. “But you never know!”