Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Good question!

I've asked myself this question more times than I can count - why are Jewish neighborhoods NOT in the forefront of the battle to provide walkable urbanist streetscapes, not to mention electric mass transit? The old-style neighborhoods are what built American Judaism - you remember, the ones with the business on the first floor and the family quarters above, ditto for all the neighbors? That model has kept the "old-world" cities and neighborhoods of Europe solvent and sustainable for literally millennia and has been the supporting foundation for the Jewish Middle class for all that time and probably even before. So why are Jews not interested in sustainable communities now? What happened to walkable Jewish communities? And why are we not trying to get them back?

New urbanists and old-fashioned Jews
Michael Lewyn
Mon, 08/17/2009 - 17:40

A few years ago, someone asked me the following question (loosely paraphrased) on a listserv: “Since the most tradition-minded* religious Jews are required by Jewish law to walk to synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days (and thus presumably prize walkability) why aren’t they a major market for new urbanist developments?”

A new development (new urbanist or otherwise) far from an existing congregation may have difficulty attracting the most tradition-minded Jews, for the simple reason that most such Jews would rather live near a preexisting congregation than move elsewhere, pray at home for a few years, and wait for enough people to follow them for a congregation to emerge. (Of course, it does happen now and then)...

...Of course, an infill new urbanist development could be located near an existing congregation. But infill developers will not always be able to get large numbers of observant Jewish customers. Here’s why: new housing usually tends to be more expensive than old housing. But the most traditional Jews tend to have less money to spend on housing than the most affluent buyers, for two reasons.

First, among Jews...the most religiously traditional people tend to have the largest families. Lots of mouths to feed mean less money to spend on housing...

...Second, large families usually need more space than small families...

Meaning all those cookie-cutter two or three bedroom homes being built on micro-lots in new developments are pretty much useless. I get that. But the Chereidi don't seem to have any problem with establishing "house-shuls" (the Jewish equivalent of "house-churches," I guess) and then obtaining a separate building later - why not moderate or modern Jews?

But walking to shul is really only half the issue - and not even the most important half, in my opinion. The real problem is not that they walk to shul, it's that they don't want to walk anywhere else - or simply can't.

Kids used to walk to the neighborhood public school and afternoon Talmud Torah or to the nearest Jewish dayschool - but now the nearest school isn't good enough, because of the cults of stringencies that have grown up to exclude "everyone else" who isn't Jewish "enough" in practice for their parent's Ravs. So kids are driven miles away instead.

Our grandmothers walked to the local market and local shops, then they pushed or pulled their shopping back home in European-style wheeled wire-frame or cloth carts & carriers - but today's women aren't willing to do that. They'd rather load up the SUV.

Our grandfathers had their own shops and stores where they engaged in various arts, crafts and trades to support their families, and in Europe and most of early American history these were almost always in some rooms or the entire first floor of the building where they lived - today's men aren't willing to get their hands dirty in those types of trades.

And even if there were young women who were willing to walk to the nearest shopping and young men who were willing to engage in honest manual labour in a home business they couldn't - because the elder Jews of these neighborhoods have not lobbied to obtain mixed-use zoning like the old-world towns and villages and early American city centers that make it all possible. And worse, even if they wanted to get started trying, they have so offended and antagonized the city and town and county authorities (and their gentile neighbors) with their constant disregard of existing zoning, safety, building and land use regulations that such mixed-use zoning efforts would likely not be approved. The neighbors would say that the Jews would just use mixed-use zones to be even more of a nuisance than they already are. (And they'd probably be correct.)

So there you have it. It's not the number of bedrooms in the flats or town houses - that issue could easily be remedied in urbanist developments. The issue is not setting up new home-shuls and eventual shul buildings. Observant Jews do that all the time. Nope - the real reason appears to be our old "friend," that attitude amoung Jews that we are somehow too good to walk and work like our ancestors did - and like other people still do even to this day in Europe and the Near East. It's arrogance, class - that and hatred of our fellow Jews - that keeps us from sustainability. And that's a real shame.

Not to mention economic suicide.

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