Why America's Religious Jews May Not Be Able to Move Back Downtown
The Atlantic Cities has obviously written a lot about the movement back to cities. It’s been happening throughout the United States, on both coasts, in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, where many young people (among other ages) are moving to dense communities and downtowns. This rejuvenation, it’s thought, is being driven by a desire for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods.
But of course, this pattern is not universal. Many people still enjoy certain advantages of the suburbs. And in the case of at least one American community, the movement back to dense neighborhoods may be all but impossible.
Historically, America’s religious Jews lived in dense neighborhoods deep in the heart of cities. And this made a lot of sense. Due to prohibitions against driving on the Sabbath and the desire to be in close proximity to one’s synagogue (in addition to being near any kosher establishments), living in dense, walkable neighborhoods was highly desirable.
But with increased affluence and a desire for the American Dream—a house on one’s own plot of land, a car, among other accouterments of middle-class life—Orthodox Jews experienced their own mass movement to the suburbs over the past 50 years. In fact, the historian Arthur Hertzberg has estimated that one in three Jews left cities for suburbia between the years 1945 and 1965, which is a much higher rate than that of the overall American population. While this is not true for all stripes of observant Jews (the ultra-Orthodox still congregate in dense neighborhoods such as those in Brooklyn, for example), many modern Orthodox Jews have made this geographic transition. (Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College, explored these trends in great detail in a 1999 paper titled, “Orthodox Jews, the City and the Suburb.”)
Despite all this renewed interest in downtowns today, many Orthodox communities are stuck in suburbia, and it comes down to one major factor: the "eruv."
In order to carry objects on the Sabbath, religious Jews construct something known as an “eruv." This generally consists of thin wires atop posts (often incorporating pre-existing electric wires or even the walls of a highway) that encircle a region and allow those within public spaces of its boundaries to more easily move about on Saturdays. Since driving is also not allowed on the Sabbath, the eruv often creates a de facto delineation of the Jewish neighborhood, and is where the synagogues are based as well. (For further insight into the eruv, see Wyatt Cenac on the Daily Show).
The first eruv in the United States was constructed in St. Louis in the 1890s. Since that time, well over a hundred have been built in American cities, both large and small. Many of these eruvin (plural for eruv) have been constructed since the 1970s, in the heyday of urban populations’ movements to the suburbs. While there are numerous downtowns or other dense regions with eruvin (for example, much of the island of Manhattan is covered by a series of eruvin and Boston’s eruv covers both urban and surburban areas), many religious Jews who might wish to move to neighborhoods that are more dense are unable to do so due to a lack of religious infrastructure.
Of course, it's not just the eruv that’s the limiting factor. There have been plenty of other kinds of religious infrastructure erected in the suburbs over the past several decades: synagogues (which need to be within walking distance on the Sabbath), Jewish schools, the presence of kosher butchers, etc.
Ultimately, this new excitement with moving to city centers is happening at a completely different speed than that at which religious infrastructure is developed. The construction of eruvin often require years of negotiation with local governments, the Jewish community, sometimes even the electric company (though many power lines are underground in downtowns, making the problem even worse), and can only be constructed relatively slowly. But there are trends in modern Jewish life that are helping to mitigate this speed mismatch. For example, the growth of relatively informal prayer meetings that often meet in members’ homes or other pre-existing buildings—known as the independent minyan movement—which allows for new synagogue communities to be rapidly deployed inside existing neighborhoods, without worrying about the need for constructing an entirely new building.
Still, construction of an eruv is a leading indicator of a significant observant Jewish population in an area, and until they can be constructed more rapidly, few Orthodox Jews will have the ability to embrace a move back into downtowns. There is a certain chicken-and-egg circle to this problem: people will avoid choosing to move to the downtown regions that are being reinvigorated until there is the necessary infrastructure. And the necessary infrastructure will not be developed until there is sufficient need. Construction of new communities requires large populations moving quite rapidly, and together. This kind of movement can indeed happen, but it is often hard to marshal such collective action in the absence of a social hierarchy. In the ultra-Orthodox community, where there is such top-down organization, for example, a rare relatively rapid move to the suburbs was done through the wholesale development of a village called Kiryas Joel by the Satmar Chasidim in Upstate New York.
Ultimately, I think the modern Orthodox movement will slowly re-embrace dense mixed-use neighborhoods or at least begin to grapple with this topic in a more open fashion. As Heilman notes, "…Orthodox Jewish practices and religious commitments were more easily satisfied in a geographically contained urban environment." Due to the prevalence of walking on the Sabbath, the desire for a large amount of religious infrastructure in close proximity (in addition to the increasing trend in a desire for downtowns), returning to downtown communities is only a matter of time, and it is surprising that this has not been done up until now.
Nonetheless, much of the movement to downtowns is being driven by the younger generation. While young people—who do not have the same need for infrastructure such as schools and parks as families—are driving the movement back to walkable neighborhoods and rejuvenating downtowns, young people who are part of a community (such as Orthodox Judaism) will lack the infrastructure of their community if they make such a move.
Having a tight-knit community based on common culture, ideas, and practices can be very important; this is why many people move to areas with greater density in the first place. But there shouldn’t have to be a choice between community and downtown.