As we approach Shavuos, perhaps it is an ideal time to consider where we feel most comfortable accepting the Torah in our time. Would it be in a leafy suburb or a bustling city? Two recent columns come to mind: Touro Law School professor Michael Lewyn’s piece in Tablet Magazine arguing that cities are better for Jews because they foster a better sense of community on account of their density and walkability, and my colleague Goldy Krantz’s piece on the need to give her family more space that she can only afford outside of New York City.
Along with affordability and space, there are also halachic considerations that make the suburbs more acceptable for Orthodox life. The biggest example of religion as a consideration for homeownership is Sukkos, when we are obligated to eat in temporary dwellings. A homeowner can build a sukkah in a backyard and use it as a place for eating, learning, and sleeping.
Apartment dwellers must choose between walking to a communal sukkah, renting a vacation home, or being the guest of a family member who owns a house. There is also the privacy factor, where children can throw tantrums without disturbing neighbors, and a family does not have to worry about what the neighbors may think as it concerns what goes on in their home. Instead of noisy music, one hears birds chirping; and instead of pollution, one can sense the pollen, and walk on the dew-covered lawn in the morning instead of concrete.
From my experience in moving from an apartment to a house, I am not sure if there is an argument for affordability. Higher taxes, renovation costs, longer commutes, and schools that are often more expensive, do not seem as practical as living in an apartment close to work, school, shopping, parks, Jewish events, and cultural activities. Maintaining a home is not cheap. Grass must be mowed, gutters cleaned, pipes unclogged, and there are more rooms to clean, dust, and search for chametz. As in Queens, anywhere in the world a house costs more when it is located closer to a shul. There’s a price to pay for the luxury of getting out of bed within a minute of davening b’tzibur.
It is difficult to generalize whether a city offers a better sense of community than a suburb. New Yorkers are famous for spending decades in their apartments and not knowing the names of their neighbors. Contrary to my expectations, my children have quickly established friendships with their new neighbors, and their parents have become our friends. It is too early for me to say whether this community is sufficiently active in politics concerning town, county, and state elections, and participation in their civic association, school district, and library board. Perhaps I’m an exceptional case among people, as I’ve become active in these things and updated my voter registration the day after I moved into my new home.
As in Queens, many Orthodox suburbs have Hatzalah, Chaverim, and Shmirah/Shomrim volunteer organizations to supplement their corresponding public agencies. When I learn that often there are former Queens residents involved in these endeavors, I recognize that you can take the person out of Queens, but opportunities for community involvement can be found anywhere in the world.
Contrary to the stereotype of suburbia as a maze of identical unattached homes, where sizable postwar temples lack for members, there are many suburbs that offer a walkable distance to shuls, schools, shopping, and parks. In his Tablet Magazine essay, titled “Why Jews need the city – or, a Jewish urbanist agenda,” Lewyn concedes that suburbs with sizable Orthodox communities by halachic design allow for walkability, citing examples in Cedarhurst, Cleveland Heights near Cleveland, and University City near St. Louis, among others. Geographic limitations such as the eruv also result in compact communities where even the most distant home would be within a half hour’s walk from a shul.
Where zoning and development fall short of expectations, private initiatives answer the need. Two such examples appear in West Hempstead. On a block of Oakford Street that is exceedingly long, two generous residents allow the public to use their driveway and yards as a shortcut to reach the minyan behind their homes on Maple Street. Until more shuls can be constructed, there is a backyard minyan on Cleveland Street on the southern side of town, and a Young Israel minyan inside a school on the northern side of town. When there are no playgrounds and schoolyards nearby, shuls build slides and swings for members to use, and some homeowners have an open-door policy for their backyard playsets.
I do not know enough about Goldy and her husband’s career and family circumstances, as it relates to where they seek to relocate. But if they wish to purchase a home within our readership area that has the suburban ambience, affordability, and a solid Jewish community, they can choose from among the communities listed on our masthead. They can join three of our writers who live in West Hempstead, or any of the other communities that are within a reasonable drive of Queens, where you can still work, shop, attend school, and report the news.
By Sergey Kadinsky