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
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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