By Sharyn Jackson
There was silverware to change, food to prepare, and bread to burn. One thing there wasn’t, for more than half the residents of the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, was time to fill out the 2010 census, mailed to Americans less than two weeks before Passover. The eight-day holiday commemorating ancient Jews’ exodus from Egypt requires intense preparations for the observant; because of a restrictive diet that week, houses must be scoured from top to bottom for any residual crumbs from the rest of the year. “When it comes to Passover, we put everything aside,” said Chaya Konig, 37, a Hasidic Jewish resident from Borough Park who works as an enumerator, the official name for census counters. “By the time we got to the mail after Passover, it was too late.”
The coincidence of the census’ mailing close to Passover is one reason, census officials say, that Borough Park’s mail-in response rate was less than 50 percent on average, with some tracts hovering close to 40 percent. In contrast, 55 percent of Brooklyn as a whole returned the survey, and 60 percent of all of New York City. (As of April 27, the mail-response deadline, national participation was at 72 percent.) With such a low response rate in one of New York City’s most populous neighborhoods, the census has had to revisit Borough Park residents with the help of local religious institutions and enumerators, who will finish their door-to-door efforts this week.
Due to the high birth-rate among this central Brooklyn neighborhood’s Hasidic Jewish inhabitants, the population here is expected to have increased exponentially since the last census in 2000. The New York City Department of Health has cited Borough Park as the neighborhood with the highest annual birth rate since it began keeping those statistics in 2003. With New York poised for legislative redistricting after the census results are tallied, Borough Park’s baby boom could mean more power for the Hasidic voting bloc. And with $400 billion of federal money allocated for infrastructure projects based on those results, which will be released in October, it could mean more affordable housing for this chronically overcrowded neighborhood.
“Unfortunately, the timing of the mail-out was not convenient,” said Denise da Costa Graeff, the census manager for northwest Brooklyn. “That was a major issue for this area.” Still, she said, a conflict like this one was inevitable. “I can’t speak for headquarters,” she said, “but if the national plan took into account every obstacle, we’d never get it done.”
It is not possible to cater the mailing dates to holidays, said Michael Cook, a national census spokesperson. “When we mail out the forms we totally understand that there is diversity among American residents, whether it depends upon holidays or things that are germane to their culture,” he said. But, said Cook, once the surveys reach mailboxes, Americans have roughly six weeks to fill out the form. After that, enumerators come knocking.
But the high concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in this neighborhood poses specific challenges even to enumeration. For one thing, women in Borough Park won’t open their doors to men they don’t know. That’s how Xiomara Luchen, 35, from the Greenwood Heights section of Brooklyn, found herself assigned to Borough Park – a place she had never even visited before. Luchen had been working for the census in nearby Sunset Park when da Costa Graeff reassigned her here in May because of a shortage of females. (The census usually assigns enumerators to work in the neighborhood in which they live.)
“I use a lot of sign language,” said Luchen, a Spanish-English interpreter and real estate agent, of dealing with the many Borough Park residents who speak Yiddish. “It’s a way to communicate.”
Luchen, who has dark hair and features, found it easier to connect with the Hasidim here than she expected. “Some people ask me, ‘Are you Jewish?’” said Luchen. “And I would say, ‘No I’m not,’ and they’d actually have a smile on their faces and say, ‘You know, you look Jewish.’”
Luchen picked up tips on the unofficial neighborhood dress code—long skirts and cardigans—from her crew leader, as well as walking around and observing the locals. “In this community,” said Luchen, “I’d rather not wear pants.”
Appearance is vital, said Chaya Konig, the Hasidic enumerator. “If you would have had this guy come with his hair standing up in a green color, they wouldn’t even open the door,” she said. We are a very close-knit community; we don’t see much of the outside world, so when we see a stranger we’re taught not to open doors.”
For Konig, who speaks both Yiddish and Hebrew, there was no learning curve regarding dress and language. Still, she found herself outside of her own world upon meeting many Hasidim from different sects. A member of the Belz sect, Konig said one of the highlights of her job was the opportunity to become friends with her crew leader, a Satmar. “We have no way to meet,” said Konig. “We don’t meet at shuls or family affairs.”
The insularity of the sects was another challenge for da Costa Graeff, because there was no singular way to get the census’s message out to all of the Hasidim here. She partnered with Rabbi Yechiel Kaufman, executive director of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council, who translated census flyers and postcards into Yiddish and fostered cooperation with major synagogues serving the Belz, Bobov, Munkatch and Satmar sects, as well as the non-sectarian Shomer Shabbos synagogue. Da Costa Graeff trained members of these synagogues to work as enumerators at their temples as a catch-all for residents who do not feel comfortable talking to strangers at their front doors.
Stationing enumerators in places of worship is unique to Borough Park, according to da Costa Graeff, who was quick to point out that the option would be available in other places if it was needed. “There’s a distrust of the secular world here,” she said. “That’s why you have to include the synagogues.”
And it’s working. “We’ve noticed that this area traditionally has a low response rate, but that people have been going to the shuls,” said da Costa Graeff. Though enumeration continues through the first week of July, with final participation counts unavailable until October, M. Veronica Lavarro, New York census media specialist, says the neighborhood’s numbers are on track or exceeding those collected in 2000.
Borough Park resident Pinny Ringel, 35, said that despite Passover’s approach, he filled out and mailed back the form within two days of receiving it. A community liaison for New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the father of four believed being counted in the census would be crucial for his neighborhood. “It’s about the money the community gets, and the lines,” said Ringel, referring to the upcoming redistricting. “Maybe we’ll be able to get another state senator or councilman. If we get more representation in this community, we’ll get more done.”