A Sephardic boom on the UES

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Syrian Jews relocate from Brooklyn to the East Side — and a major new communal institution rises up to accommodate them


  • The Moise Safra Community Center on East 82nd Street, set to open this fall, will become the central community hub for the Sephardic Jewish population of the Upper East Side. Photo: Douglas Feiden

  • The Sephardic Academy of Manhattan bought this building on East 74th Street, now home of the New York Veterinary Hospital, for $14 million and plans to convert it to an elementary school by 2020. Photo: Douglas Feiden

“Now, we have the school, the shul and the pool.”

Rebecca Harary, community activist, politician and ex-Brooklynite

A 14-story, $65 million building now wrapping up construction on East 82nd Street between Lexington and Park Avenues reflects a sea change in Jewish life on the Upper East Side — and the arrival and maturity of a new and deeply religious populace.

When the Moise Safra Community Center opens its doors this fall, it will quickly become the premier social, spiritual, educational, recreational, cultural and culinary center for the fast-growing Sephardic set pouring into Manhattan.

Designed to cater largely to Orthodox Jews of Syrian ancestry, the Safra Center — in its programming, ambition and vision, if not its budget — will inevitably be likened to the 92nd Street Y. Or at least a more religious version of the historically Ashkenazi institution that now serves people of all faiths on its Lexington Avenue campus just 10 blocks to the north.

The 73,000-square-foot structure will operate as a vertical campus packed with two synagogues, three kosher cafes, a swimming pool, library, fitness center, wellness center and two sprawling outdoor terraces, plans filed with the city's Department of Buildings show.

Shoehorned into a tight urban space that once housed three adjoining townhouses, the center will become one of the busiest buildings in town: It boasts study rooms, lecture rooms, prayer rooms, ballrooms, a dining lounge, bike storage, art classrooms and studios for dance and yoga.

Over a month-long period, Safra Center executives declined several requests for interviews and a tour, saying they weren't yet ready to tell their story publicly.

That didn't dampen enthusiasm for the center's debut. At Congregation Or Zarua, a Conservative synagogue directly across 82nd Street, Rabbi Scott N. Bolton is rolling out the metaphorical red carpet for a place where Jews of all backgrounds are welcome to participate.

“It's East meets West, and Sephardi meets Ashkenazi,” the rabbi said. “We look forward to cooperative ventures, block parties at holiday times, and an increased traffic in programming that will create a Jewish buzz on the block.”

The Safra Center launch comes amid a surge in the population of Jews whose families trace their roots to the Mid-East, North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin — and who have recently been putting down stakes in the East 60s, 70s, 80s and low 90s.

“We're putting down roots here, we're building here, we've invested here, we have everything we need right here,” said Rebecca Harary, who was the Safra Center's founding executive director and Republican nominee for an East Side City Council seat in 2017.

An empty-nester with four of her six children married and a fifth leaving for college, she and her husband made a tentative move from Brooklyn to the UES seven years ago. They never looked back.

Meanwhile, other neighborhood mainstays are bursting at the seams, including Manhattan Sephardic Congregation on East 75th Street, the largely Moroccan synagogue founded by Rabbi Raphael Benchimol in 1990 as the first the first full-time Sephardic synagogue on the UES.

“This community is continually growing, and as more centers and institutions are being built, the more it can be expected to grow,” the rabbi said.


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