Serenity By The Sea

Orthodox families find peaceful home and casual camaraderie in interracial Bayswater.

When Rena and Mayer Blum started looking at houses in Bayswater, they hardly realized how perfect the neighborhood would be for them. Friends had sung praises of the local synagogue and low housing prices. And when they visited the area, the Blums were drawn to the small, suburban village on the water with spectacular views of Manhattan.

But as an interracial Orthodox Jewish couple — Rena is African-American and Mayer is white, of Eastern European Jewish descent — they soon found that Bayswater offered even more: a neighborhood where African-Americans and Orthodox Jews are the largest and most visible ethnic groups but is surprisingly free of the tensions that plague areas with similar demographics.

As an African-American Orthodox Jewish woman, Rena, 33, gets her share of
stares, but she has never suffered any hostilities. “People are curious, that’s all,” she says in a lilting speech punctuated by frequent laughs. “[Being an interracial couple] does give us a bit of perspective. When we brought my daughter home [Chana was born this month], a young teenager who lives near us went to his mother and said, ‘Mom, that can’t be Rena’s baby — it’s too fair!’”

Mayer, who was raised Jewish but became Orthodox on his own at age 10, grew up near Rena in Queens. She was reading about Judaism when she met Mayer, who immediately recognized her as his bashert and proposed two months later. They were married in 1993; two years later, Rena decided on her own to convert to Conservative Judaism. In 1997, she converted again, this time to Orthodoxy. “I could never have gone all the way [to Orthodoxy] at first,” she says now. “But I have never regretted it for a moment.

”Rena and Mayer, a 42-year-old case manager for the New York State Department of Mental Health, have two older boys, and they find that children are the catalyst to interaction between ethnic groups.

“My children play with whoever’s in the park, black or white,” says Rena. “If my kids are playing with black kids, then the other Jewish kids will play with them, too.”

According to many Bayswater residents, the park on a Saturday afternoon is where the community comes together, as black, Jewish, and Indian parents sit and chat while their children play. “When we’re in the park on Shabbos,” says Mayer, “my son, who is 5, he has curly hair and braided payes with tzitzis hanging out, he’ll go over to black kids on our block and just say, ‘Will you play with me?’ He’ll play with anyone, black or Jewish, but he’s also very conscious of who’s Jewish and who’s not.”

Home to a growing, youthful population, Bayswater, a section of Far Rockaway, has seen its popularity wax and wane over the decades. An upper-class white neighborhood through the 1960s, when Jews flocked to its seaside bungalows in the summer, Bayswater began to lose cachet when public housing projects were built in the late 1960s. Fearing an increase in crime, wealthy white families fled, leaving Bayswater and adjacent Wavecrest to deteriorate, according to Rabbi Jay Goldberg, who has been here for 16 years and leads the Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater. The area became home to Pakistani and Indian immigrants and middle-class Caribbean black families, among others. “In the mid-1980s, whites and Jewish families began to come back,” adds Rabbi Goldberg, who estimates that there are almost 200 Jewish families in the area, most of them Orthodox.

With the influx of young families — most recently the Satmar chasidim, who are establishing an outpost here — Bayswater is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, as the area gains appeal for budget-conscious Jewish families. While some of the seaside bungalows still lie vacant, with trash littered along abandoned lots, most of Bayswater consists of genteel houses on tree-lined streets, with little traffic and a small-town quietness.

Most of Bayswater’s residents say that economics played a role in their decision to move here. “I actually have 200 feet of land back there,” says Yisrael Shaffren, a 30-ish computer worker, indicating his backyard with an enthusiastic wave. “I don’t know anyone back in Brooklyn with land.” Many of the community’s Jewish residents moved here about 13 years ago, forgoing established, solidly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhoods for lower prices and a less urban environment. “People said to us, ‘How could you move your kids to a place like that?’” recalls Anne Ritholtz, referring to Bayswater’s relatively small Jewish presence. “But we came here and hoped it would blossom, and it did.”

While there is limited formal interaction between black and Jewish residents — Jewish residents hesitate to invite black neighbors to dinner, since reciprocation would be impossible in non-kosher homes — there is a casual camaraderie and respect between the communities, according to residents. Mayer Blum recalls that after a recent fire in a black home killed two children, the Jewish community took up a collection to help the family. He also notes that blacks and Jews are both active in the Bayswater Civic Association. “There were always Jews and non-Jews here, and we as a community have held on to that pride,” he says.

Although the Blums are deeply involved with the Jewish community in Bayswater, they also have black friends, and neither has suffered any anti-black prejudice in the neighborhood. In fact, Rena often receives calls from other African-Americans considering conversion, and she shares her experiences and offers advice. “If you need something, people are always there to help you,” she says. “And we keep an eye out for each other’s children, regardless of color.”

For Rivka Goldstein and her husband, Orthodox Jewish converts of Puerto Rican descent, Bayswater seemed like a comfortable, family-friendly Jewish neighborhood that lacked the insularity of more traditional areas. “We heard that the community was very diverse, a lot of baal teshuvahs, [returnees to religion] and that was something we were looking for,” says Rivka, 26, whose family moved from Belle Harbor last year. “Everyone treats us like a family, they’ve invited us over for Shabbos and Yontif [holdays]. We’ve never encountered any discrimination from the Jewish community.”

Three months after they moved to Bayswater, however, Rivka’s husband, Isaac, was attacked by a black youth in an incident labeled a bias crime. They moved a week later into a more integrated section, but were touched at the outpouring of support from their black neighbors. “The black community was outraged — we had black neighbors come by, and the Haitian family from whom we were renting an apartment came over and told us how sorry they were,” recalls Rivka, who insists this was “an isolated incident.”

Recently, Rena Blum was reminded of how lucky she is to live in a warm and caring community. Hospitalized with complications after a Caesarian section, she was overwhelmed at the support her family received without even having to ask. “My neighbors really rallied around us; they provided food for my husband, one took care of my 5-year-old, and another watched the baby during the day,” she says. “I don’t think any other neighborhood I’ve lived in would’ve done this for me.”

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