For Orthodox Jewish Neighborhoods, Community and Walkability are Key

Walkable neighborhoods are more financially productive for businesses and municipalities, and they save individuals money on transportation costs, yet most Americans still live in car-dominated areas where they choose to drive most of the time.

But what about communities where walking is truly the only option because it’s required by God? For Orthodox Jews who adhere to the 39 forbidden labors of the Sabbath, every Friday at sundown begins a 25-hour period where driving, biking, taking public transit and a whole host of other day-to-day activities are off limits.

I spoke with Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an Orthodox Jewish journalist who lives in New York City with her husband and one-year-old son, to hear her perspective on how Orthodox Judaism impacts the neighborhoods where observant Jews live, as well as the challenges that come along with this way of life in urban spaces.

The Sabbath or Shabbat is the holy day of rest and a focal point that shapes life in Orthodox communities, so their neighborhoods must be built to accommodate that. “Because of Shabbat, the shul [synagogue] has to be within walking distance,” says Avital. “There needs to be a mikveh [ritual bath] for women that is also preferably within walking distance.”

Another important Shabbat rule that impacts neighborhood design is a requirement that Jews abstain from carrying anything outside the home on the Sabbath. This includes books, food, and even children. For families with young children, that could mean confining parents to their homes on the Sabbath. Mobility-limited people would also have restricted movement because using canes and walkers counts as “carrying,” too. In order to get around the challenges that this rule presents for everyone, Orthodox communities often construct an eruv, which is a border around a given neighborhood, designating the whole area as a communal home for Sabbath purposes.

Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The  hasidim  are an Orthodox Jewish sect. (Photo by  Adam Jones )

Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The hasidim are an Orthodox Jewish sect. (Photo by Adam Jones)

Avital says: 

That has a huge impact on communities, especially people with young families. That’s the first question people ask when moving into a neighborhood. […] It literally affects who can and cannot leave the house. As a mother of a one year old, that’s something I think about a lot.

The existence of an eruv is yet another reason why Orthodox Jews choose to live in close proximity to one another.

Beyond just being within an eruv and close to a shul and mikveh, there are other necessities of daily life that an Orthodox Jewish community requires: Jewish schools and kosher grocery stores where kosher meat is readily available. Kosher restaurants are also an amenity that many neighborhoods desire. There are also the less tangible but vital values of living in community: families who share your culture, who help each other with childcare, who celebrate holidays together and assist in hard times.

Avital describes her childhood in a suburban Jewish community in New Jersey:

It was beautiful because you’d step outside on Saturday morning and see people walking in the street and not many cars. There was a park that we called the Shabbat Park where we’d all play […] There would be a different parent who’d bring candy every week for the kids.

It was very warm and it had the atmosphere of Shabbat. […] I really believe it’s Shabbat that keeps communities as cohesive as they are.

Hasidic Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn (Photo by  Adam Jones )

Hasidic Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn (Photo by Adam Jones)

As Avital related to me, Ahad Ha’am (a Hebrew writer from the late 19th century) famously said, “More than the Jews keep Shabbat, Shabbat keeps the Jews.” It’s a day when everything slows (or stops) and a community focuses only on being together and being with God. That warmth and kinship is, in no small part, a result of the literal proximity of Orthodox Jews to one another in close-knit neighborhoods.

The desire to live in these neighborhoods brings with it great challenges though. “People tend to clamor towards these densely populated communities,” says Avital, “which is creating problems because people get priced out.”

Pockets of New York City, particularly in Brooklyn, are widely known as popular Orthodox Jewish areas where families continue to be drawn, even as housing costs skyrocket. But, just as people—religious or not—across the country are choosing expensive urban areas because they're desirable locations, many Orthodox Jews are willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of living in Jewish neighborhoods. Avital explains:

Just looking at the cost of living in the New York area, people could choose to live much further out with a better quality of life for much less money, especially large families. It’s a huge financial burden, yet people will make the sacrifice to live here for the sake of that cohesion, for the sake of their children growing up in a strong warm community.

Of course, there are plenty of Orthodox communities outside Brooklyn and around the nation, but even some of those neighborhoods are experiencing affordability issues. Avital related the story of Lakewood, NJ. Once a quiet farming town in the first half of the twentieth century, Lakewood has become a burgeoning Orthodox community over the last several decades, spurred by the creation of a large yeshiva (a Jewish institution for learning) there. Avital, who grew up an hour from Lakewood, describes watching the community go from being a place where young families looking for affordable housing would move, to a place that is now bursting at its seams and only really affordable for wealthy people. The young families now overflow into nearby towns, which has caused some hostility from non-Jewish residents of those areas.

According to Avital, other up-and-coming Orthodox destinations in the tri-state area include Staten Island, Jersey City and upstate New York, and there’s also a push to get Orthodox Jews out of the region altogether. “There are big organizations that are trying to incentivize moving out of the tri-state area entirely, which is really tough,” says Avital. “The infrastructure has to be in place: the day school, the shul, the mikveh, a way of getting kosher meat, and comfortable housing for large families.” That’s no small feat.

I myself grew up near a concentrated Jewish area, the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, and I attended high school in that neighborhood. We had all the infrastructure needed—synagogues, schools, a mikveh, a kosher grocery store—albeit on a much smaller scale than in Brooklyn, and there are neighborhoods across the country doing the same. 

Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods demonstrate that a walkable lifestyle is possible and that the desire to live in a community of people who share your values—where all your needs are met by nearby stores and institutions—is so strong it's driving up the cost of living in these places. These are challenges that communities of many faiths and backgrounds are facing, and, whether we choose to address them by relocating to new neighborhoods or creatively expanding housing options, they will surely be defining features of our urban landscapes in the years to come.

(Top photo by Roman Iakoubtchik)

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