Westchester County

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WESTCHESTER COUNTY , county in New York State. Located immediately north of New York City, and ranked 12th among American counties in per capita personal income, Westchester County is home to the eighth largest Jewish community in the nation, numbering 129,000 in 2002.

Established in 1683, the 500 square mile county was predominantly rural before the introduction of commuter railroads in the mid-19th century. Jews have lived in Westchester since colonial times. In the early 18th century the family of Jechiel Hays migrated from Holland. His sons and grandsons were farmers and shopkeepers in Rye, New Rochelle, Bedford, North Castle, and Pleasantville. The Hays family has preserved Jewish continuity in the county ever since, though some have maintained residences in both New York City and Westchester. Prominent figures were Daniel Peixotto *Hays (d. 1923), Democratic Party figure, Jewish communal activist, and second mayor of Pleasantville; and Arthur Hays *Sulzberger (d. 1968), publisher of the New York Times.

The Hays family was not typical; the Jewish population grew only after the eastern European migration of 1880–1924 that formed America's core Jewish population. Most of the immigrants were storekeepers and artisans living and working in cities and villages in the southern, eastern and western fringes of the county. They labored long hours to feed, clothe, and provide simple comforts for local residents and sustain their own large families. Some Jews ventured into the countryside as itinerant peddlers. A few owned and operated farms. Jewish communal life revolved around self-help organizations, kosher grocery and butcher shops, and 17 traditional synagogues. A smaller group of acculturated Jews owned large local businesses or commuted to work in New York City. Along with prospering Russian-born Jews, they established Reform synagogues in the southernmost cities of Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and New Rochelle.

In the 20th century, Westchester Jewry underwent three periods of rapid expansion. The first was the 1920s. A boom in cheap transportation facilitated commutation to Manhattan and the Bronx. When modestly priced automobiles, a new parkway system, and comfortable railroad cars made suburban living attractive, a Jewish middle class found its way to the county. The pattern of settlement was uneven. Jewish commuters and established local businessmen resided comfortably along the tree-lined streets of the southern tier cities and centrally located White Plains. Jewish developers sold Scarsdale lots to other Jews. Jews were not, however, welcome in the other "first class villages" of Bronxville, Rye, Larchmont, and Pelham Manor; nor were they wanted in sections of northern Westchester and some Hudson River villages.

Until the Great Depression Jewish-owned stores and factories brought prosperity to Westchester cities and villages. New wealth facilitated the formation of synagogues as well as the expansion of local communal institutions and chapters of the major Jewish organizations.

Some Jews, however, never made it to the middle class; they remained in low-income, low status occupations, toiling as milkmen, trolley conductors, prison guards, ferry operators, and junkmen, unable to accumulate enough capital to establish stable businesses.

A cohort of radical factory workers and storekeepers from New York City formed summer camps and colonies in northern Westchester. During the summer months they enjoyed fresh air, green grass, wholesome recreation, and endless political debates.

The second period of Westchester Jewry's rapid expansion was the post World War ii era (1946–1970), when new social and political factors facilitated increased Jewish settlement. As a result of the increased openness in American society and new laws, heretofore-insurmountable barriers crumbled. After the federal government outlawed restrictive residence clauses in 1948, Jews purchased houses in villages along the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, as well as in developing sections of Mt. Vernon, Yonkers, New Rochelle, and White Plains. The Jewish concentration in Scarsdale swelled incrementally to form about a third of the population.

That antisemitism was not dead, however, is indicated by two phenomena, one far more disconcerting than the other. Country clubs, long the bastion of upper-class snobbery, remained closed to Jews (who formed 11 of their own). Much more serious were the Peekskill Riots. For several years a consortium of the summer camps and colonies invited bass-baritone Paul Robeson, a multi-talented African-American singer, actor, and political radical, to perform. After the Labor Day concert of 1949, local ruffians, screaming anti-black, anti-Communist and anti-Jewish epithets, pelted cars and buses exiting the grounds. Police looked on impassively while the rioters damaged vehicles, inflicting injuries upon the passengers.

Untouched by the Peekskill incident, many Jews welcomed new opportunities to live and work in the county. Teachers found positions heretofore denied them. Some Westchester-born college-educated sons (and later, daughters) returned from war and university to apply new technology and selling techniques to their fathers' businesses. Others preferred to practice law and medicine near home to commuting to New York.

During the immediate postwar period Jewish communal life flourished. People who had seldom attended religious services in the city joined synagogues when they moved to Westchester. They raised money to help Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations relocate existing institutions and construct new ones in villages where none had existed before. Premier architects Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, and Louis Kahn designed houses of worship in Port Chester, Scarsdale, and Chappaqua.

As the excitement of newness abated, economic and social circumstances again restructured the Westchester Jewish community. In the 1970s and 1980s embattled school systems, high taxes, and societal problems rendered the southernmost cities less desirable. Major synagogues in Yonkers and Mt. Vernon merged, relocated further north, or gave up the ghost. The second wave of feminism and inflated housing prices brought women into the workplace; consequently fewer devoted energy to congregational sisterhoods and Hadassah. As well, predominantly male Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish War Veterans and B'nai B'rith, no longer attracted newcomers. Remaining service, defense, and charitable organizations moved their headquarters to south-central Westchester – i.e., the area centered in White Plains, Scarsdale, and northern New Rochelle.

Change was also apparent in the business and professional profile of Westchester Jewry. While many Jews continued to commute to New York City, an ever-increasing minority worked closer to home. The professional staffs of area hospitals became disproportionately Jewish. Corporate chains slowly ground down the independent pharmacies, privately owned clothing stores, and dry goods emporia. The result was that few shops along the Main Streets of Port Chester and New Rochelle, for example, heavily Jewish in the early 20th century, remained under Jewish ownership. Consequently sons and daughters who returned to Westchester after college took over only those family businesses that were sizeable or cutting-edge. Otherwise, they found opportunity in the corporate parks and professional offices constructed all over the county.

The most recent Jewish influx began in the early 1990s. At a time when the population of American Jewry and New York Jewry remained static, Westchester Jewry experienced a 40% growth, from 91,000 in 1991 to 129,000 in 2002. Housing costs and lack of space in built-up areas moved the population northward. By 2005, northern Westchester matched south-central Westchester in Jewish population and affluence. A case in point is the fact that the Reform congregations of Chappaqua and Bedford nearly match the largest temples in Scarsdale and White Plains in size, beauty and membership.

Judaism in northern Westchester presents an uneven pattern. On the one hand Jewish religious practice is weaker in northern Westchester than in areas closer to New York City. More Jews in this area are married to non-Jews, and for many others, Judaism is a seasonal matter. In 2002 about three-quarters attended a seder and fasted on Yom Kippur, but only 16% lit Shabbat candles and 7% kept kosher. On the other hand, recent arrivals to northern Westchester have launched a number of new Jewish institutions. Pleasantville, home to the pioneering Hays family, but with a weak Jewish presence through most of the 20th century, now hosts the Richard J. Rosenthal jcc and the Pleasantville Community Synagogue. Newcomers have initiated Jewish study groups, havurot, and congregations in villages with no previous Jewish address. Most Northern Westchester synagogues identify as Reform, but with a decidedly independent streak. Publicity for The Jewish Family Congregation, South Salem, for example, boasts that it "practices Reform Judaism with a traditional flavor."

In the early 21st century, however, the core of Westchester Jewish life nevertheless remained in south-central Westchester. More Jews there than in other sections of the county observe Jewish rituals and attend synagogue on a regular basis, contribute to Jewish causes, visit Israel with some regularity, enroll their children in Jewish schools, and supply leadership for Jewish organizations in the county and New York City.

For all Westchester Jewry, there was a discernable Jewish profile. In 2002 Westchester Jews constituted 9% of Jewish households in the eight counties of the uja/Federation of New York service area (New York City, Long Island and Westchester). Half (51%) belonged to synagogues, a considerable advance over the 43% regional total. Among Westchester Jews 42% identifed as Reform, 31% as Conservative and 9% as Orthodox, a deviation from the comprehensive New York profile, where the percentages are more balanced: 29%, 26% and 19% respectively. In a child-centered region, over half of the Jewish children are enrolled in supplementary schools connected to synagogues, while 31% attend four Jewish day schools and two high schools that follow Orthodox or Conservative models. A few adolescents travel to Jewish high schools in New York City.

Virtually all children in Jewish families attend college or university, and many do not return to Westchester. The future of Westchester Jewry depends upon opportunities in business and the professions and the continued appeal of life in New York and its environs.


B.R. Shargel and H.L. Drimmer, The Jews of Westchester, a Social History (1994); B.R. Shargel, "Leftist Summer Colonies of Northern Westchester County, New York," in: American Jewish History, 83:3 (September, 1995); New York Population Studies, uja Federation of New York, 1991 and 2002.

[Baila Round Shargel (2nd ed.)]