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.”