A 24-year-old Jewish Upper West Sider helps run the most important Arab-American organization in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to 35,000 Arabs
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to an estimated 35,000 Arabs, is the largest Arab-American community outside of Michigan and California. That number is an estimate because no one in government has been able to count. “The community doesn’t like to fill out forms, and for good reason,” a staffer at the Arab-American Association of New York, in Bay Ridge, told me, referring to the recent revelation that the NYPD targeted Muslims for surveillance. Over the next two months, however, the Arabs of Bay Ridge will submit to their first-ever community census. It won’t be conducted by the city, but by the Arab-American Association of New York, the only support organization in the neighborhood that doesn’t take government money, leaving it free to serve undocumented immigrants, a major part of its base, and provide services demanded by its constituents rather than city bureaucrats.
In the last five years, the Arab-American Association of New York, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in December, has quintupled its budget to a half-million dollars, drawn from individual donations and foundation support from the likes of the New York Foundation, the Union Square Awards, and the Brooklyn Community Foundation. It is the front line of American acculturation, if not integration, for tens of thousands of ESL-hungry Arab immigrants from Palestine, Morocco, Algeria, and beyond. The organization plays more or less the role that Abraham Cahan’s Forward played for the immigrants of Eastern Europe a century ago.
The executive director of the organization is Linda Sarsour, 31, a Palestinian-American mother of three who wears the hijab and plans to become the first Arab-American on the New York City Council when she runs in 2017, after the local seat opens up. Sarsour, who took over the organization in 2005 and has raised its profile tremendously—she was honored in December as one of 10 Champions of Change by the White House—travels a lot on behalf of the association. The young woman who runs the association day to day, juggling budget memos, the census, and calls from the BBC is all of 24 years old. Her name is Jennie Goldstein, and she is a Jew from the Upper West Side.
“Everything without precedent, or controversial—it lands on my desk,” Goldstein explained when we met. “When Linda’s out, I’m the last answer. I make it rain.”
Goldstein has blue eyes and dirty blonde hair, a startling sight among the hijabs worn by the other female staffers. The organization occupies what was once an obstetrician’s office, which explains the waiting area out front and its maze of small, fluorescent-lit rooms. Goldstein’s office is festooned with a poster of a Palestinian hip-hop band and a sign from a protest of the NYPD earlier this month. (“#wtfnypd,” she scrawled on it in Magic Marker as I stood there.)
Goldstein joined the Arab-American Association in 2009 through AmeriCorps after graduating from Middlebury, where she studied international economics. “When I was offered the position, I thought, ‘hell yes,’ ” she told me. “I had seen the posting on the Middlebury career services site, and I just knew that it was my job. I didn’t speak Arabic, but I could wrangle large groups of people. I didn’t come here because I’m a rabble-rousing activist. My interest was in community building. In college, I had to persuade you to come see the band. Here, people are bursting through the door asking for services. It was a real mandate. But it’s been scary to build services you’re not a part of.”
Goldstein’s father is Jewish and her mother is Protestant. Growing up on the Upper West Side, she lit candles for Shabbat on Fridays; she went to church with her mother on Sundays. Being raised by parents of different faiths never confused her because she was never asked to keep anything straight. She accompanied her mother on Sundays because she liked being with her, and she memorized the Lord’s Prayer as a 6-year-old because it “was part of the vernacular of educated people that I wanted to know.”
But she was given enough to go on: The family split what she called “the three major Jewish holidays”—Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Thanksgiving, she explained with a laugh—between her father’s brothers. On Yom Kippur, Goldstein would fast with her best friend, who was also half-Jewish. “School was closed, so we’d go to Macy’s and try on clothes because we felt skinny because we were fasting,” she said. “And then we’d go to a Jewish deli on the Upper West Side and eat dinner.” Her mother was usually the one who harassed her father to light candles on Friday night. “For my mother, the point of religious tradition is tradition. That’s more important than which exact code of ethics it is. As a kid, I saw the church as a community center.”
Though she’s lived in New York her entire life, Goldstein “thought Bay Ridge was in Queens” when she started working at the Arab-American Association. In her two and a half years there, she has become nearly as synonymous with it as Linda Sarsour. “This is the girl that I depend on for the whole life!” Habib Joudeh, a pharmacist who is the group’s vice-president, exclaimed to me one recent afternoon.
“Jennie keeps this place together,” Sarsour, the director, said. “She has a lot of energy and patience. I travel a lot, so I need to know it’s in the hands of a person like that. And there’s a mom thing about Jennie. She sees you’ve been working hard, she’ll go out and get you a rose. I’m not that mushy. We complement each other. People see two young women running this thing, one Jewish, one Palestinian.”
Goldstein would argue that she’s had the success she has had not because of what she’s done but because of what she hasn’t. The first time we met, in Crown Heights, where she lives, she was en route to smoke shisha in Queens. Don’t you get enough of that in Bay Ridge? I asked. “I don’t go into those,” she answered. “There isn’t a single woman in those places.” What would happen if she went in? “I’d get served. But they’d stare me down. People are so skeptical of my role here already that I try really hard to stay on the right side. If somebody on the street says something, I don’t answer, because I don’t know whose brother that person is.”
“If I said your job is to re-educate these people—” I began a question.
“False,” she replied. “And I learned early on not to call these people ‘these people.’ No one is successful in the world because they walk in and say my job is to re-educate. I am a guest in this community. The government doesn’t pay my rent—they do.”
When I visited Goldstein in Bay Ridge last week, she walked me around with a mother’s pride. “You know that Dave Chappelle bit about ‘gun store, liquor store’?” she said. “Well, here it’s nail salon, barber shop, halal butcher.” She could recite which neighborhood banks had been supportive of the Arab-American Association and which hadn’t. “That’s our congressman,” she said, pointing to a poster of Rep. Michael Grimm in a shop window. “He has the distinction of being the Tea Party’s first congressman from New York State. No thanks to us. The district also includes Staten Island. Without redistricting, we’ll never have a shot at one of our people in office,” she said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Arabs of Bay Ridge love Jennie Goldstein back. According to Goldstein and Sarsour, few know that she’s Jewish—the name Goldstein isn’t the clear indicator to them that it tends to be to native-born Americans. But that makes her no less foreign. “They have questions about me as an American,” Goldstein said. “Is this person going to hate me because I’m Arab? Is this person going to look down on me because I don’t speak English? They’re very aware of the discourse in this country.”
“Jennie is one of the easiest things about working at the association,” Roweida Jaber, a 41-year-old case manager, told me. I’d had to call her from Goldstein’s cell phone because it would have been inappropriate for a man to call her directly. She kept calling me “sir,” in the over-respectful way of a new immigrant. Of Palestinian descent, Jaber passed through Kuwait and Jordan before arriving in the United States in 2009. “I have never felt the difference between me and her, inside or outside,” she said.
Goldstein told me that she responds to the apartness of the Arab-American community not least because she comes from a people apart. Or, rather, a people that used to be apart. “My grandfather Joe was a master electrician in Corona, Queens,” she told me. “He went out of his way to hire black electricians because he knew what it was like to be discriminated against.” But Goldstein wonders if Jewish prosperity, especially in New York, has distanced some Jews from circumstances that might have made them more empathetic to the Arab and Muslim immigrant experience. “Sometimes, there’s a real inability to imagine what it’s like for the other side,” she said.
Goldstein—like the many Jewish individuals and organizations committed to Arab betterment—is a rebuke to that view. But she makes such a valuable advocate for those in Bay Ridge precisely because she brings to her position a freakish confidence that would be impossible were she less well-parented, less well-educated, and were her Jewishness more separable from her Americanness. When we met in Crown Heights, we walked to find an outdoor spot to talk because the thermometer was near 60. Eventually, she settled on someone’s stoop. “Won’t they mind?” I asked. Her retort: “Are you a New Yorker or what?”
When Goldstein studied abroad in Paris at 20, she found herself for the first time without a community on Rosh Hashanah. “I was desperately lonely,” she said. “What they say in those situations is, do what you do at home. So, I found a synagogue. I figured I would be among my people, at least. But I wasn’t. The women were on a higher floor, unable to see anything. There was no child care, so they had to look after the kids, who were running around and making all this noise. The message was, the grown-ups are communing with God and the women are upstairs running after the kids. That was so unfair in what it said about a woman’s relationship to God.”
I was struck by the irony. Didn’t the same thing bother her in the community she serves now? Was it not equally frustrating, especially for someone so accustomed to traversing boundaries, to have to stay out of certain coffee shops, to keep her mouth closed during certain exchanges? Was she not shorting her constituents an opportunity to become more fully American?
“The problem with the synagogue wasn’t that the women didn’t have equal access as men to the tradition,” she said. “It’s that they didn’t have options, like child care. When we do things like have babysitting at English classes at AAANY so that women with children can still come, that’s a response to that lack of access,” she said. Goldstein must have noticed my skepticism, so she went on: “The Arab community didn’t hire me to change its values. I had a girl who got into Wellesley and her parents wouldn’t let her go. She ended up going to a school well below her level. I thought I was going to lose my mind. A girl whose parents say she can’t go away to college? My reaction is: Run away from those parents,” she said. “But looking at the bigger picture, I thought, ‘Is that the right choice for that girl, and do I have any place encouraging her to do that?’ No on both counts. Her relationship with her family is extremely important. There might be a middle ground I’m not seeing, complications I’m not seeing. It’s never my place to tell someone what to do.”
Perhaps, Goldstein seemed to be saying, these girls didn’t want, as she had, to navigate competing personal interests like how to attend Wellesley and remain religious. Then again, perhaps the women in the Paris synagogue didn’t either—but Goldstein didn’t bring up that possibility.
In Bay Ridge, most Arab girls don’t get to take the subway by themselves, let alone aim for universities beyond NYU. Some get pulled out of school to help take care of large families, never to return. Goldstein says she quietly tutors them when the opportunity presents itself. She mentioned one girl who was taken out of school at 16 by her parents. “She woke up at 21 and decided she really wanted to finish,” Goldstein said. “So I tutored her. She got her high-school diploma a month ago. She really wants to go to college. I don’t know where things are now. She only comes by the office while running errands because she’s not allowed to be out by herself. She doesn’t have a cell phone, so sometimes she’ll text me on someone else’s phone, but I can’t really get in touch with her.”
She went on: “You have plenty of kids to help whose parents are pushing them to succeed. All of us who work at the association are role models for our kids, and it would be wrong for us to say, ‘Don’t listen to your parents, don’t listen to your culture.’ Because that’s not what grown-ups are supposed to do. We’re modeling the behavior we want our kids to have, and that means some level of respect for authority.”
That every staff member apart from Linda Sarsour and Roweida Jaber is in his or her twenties only makes that aspiration more humbling. And yet Goldstein is who she is in part because her parents tried to let her find herself instead of following authority. Goldstein’s mother, Cynthia Roney, grew up in a rural mill town in Newfoundland and “fought her way out,” in her daughter’s words, so that now she is a “badass who travels the world” assessing corporate risk for Bank of America. But she struggled to make peace with the fact that her children “weren’t doing jobs that were easily defined to her friends or that were very stable in her eyes.” (Goldstein’s younger brother works on a ranch on the Nevada-Idaho border.) But then Roney struggled against that. “She’s proud of us now,” Goldstein said.
Then again, several weeks of shuttling between Bay Ridge and Manhattan, where I live, reminded me that the unwritten gender separation and social codes that prevail in Bay Ridge prevail almost everywhere. Women avoid certain establishments dominated by certain kinds of males, as whites avoid certain black establishments, and vice versa. Orthodox Jews don’t frequent Bay Ridge, and the Arabs from there don’t go out of their way to visit Borough Park. De facto separation is the natural code of life, and the Arab-American community’s embodiment of it may be more typically, if not ideally, American than the enlightened, progressive futurism of Chelsea and Fort Greene. The United States is no more post-racial than it is post-ethnic. Ironically, this country’s openness to immigrants ensures that. We want our immigrants to trumpet ideals that natives often ignore. Then again, we tend to forgive in others traits that we excoriate in our own.
As for Goldstein, her Jewishness recedes and comes in as the moment insists, like a tide. To a more traditional Jew, this must feel like dilettantism, or heresy. But to someone less bound, like me, this kind of pick-and-choose flexibility can feel like an unscary invitation into religion. That is more or less what Jennie Goldstein tries to offer the Arab-Americans of Bay Ridge: a way into this country on their terms as much as those of America.
Though she will never mistake herself for a Bay Ridge native, the locals have given her something as well: a sense of community. It comes alive especially on Friday afternoons, when she likes to walk over to Mike’s Donuts, which is across Fifth Avenue from the Bay Ridge Islamic Center. She buys a cup of coffee, sits down at the window, and watches the faithful stream out of prayer.
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