The New Jewish Neighborhood (Part 5): Walking to Shul

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner likens the ranking of religious ideas and core values to a deck of playing cards.  Each religion plays with a full deck but stacks it differently.  To many Christians, a value like salvation is paramount, found at or near the top of the deck, while revelation is found a bit later.  We Jews have a strong belief in the unity of God (we came up with the whole “monotheism” thing), but for us concern about the afterlife is found well after the top ten in the deck — certainly after values like community, kindness or justice.

When people ask me the inevitable question: “Why do you live in Reservoir Hill?” I find myself turning to Kushner’s deck.  There are three cards that rise to the top.   Here they are (though not necessarily in order of importance):

  1. Shabbat observance
  2. Diversity/social justice
  3. The intrinsic value of living near my shul

The first two are fairly straightforward; I have written extensively on the second in previous blog posts.  The third, however, is hardly self-evident.  Lots of people, the vast majority of people, live far from their jobs.  City-living helps some to cut their commute time down, but there are plenty of urban residents who drive regularly to the suburbs or to distant parts of the city.

Cities across the country, though, are creating incentives to live near work.  Here are two Baltimore programs: “Live Near Your Work” and a (related) Johns Hopkins program of the same name. An obvious reason to do this is decreased use of fossil fuels while increasing alternative modes of transportation like biking, walking and public transit.  But an equally critical value is, quite simply, to contribute to one’s own community — financially, ecologically and socially.  

The question is, though, not only whether we rabbis ought to live near our shuls but whether Jews in general ought to give this serious thought.  More than 60 years ago now, Jacob Agus, a Baltimore rabbi and giant of twentieth century Conservative Judaism, co-authored a controversial legal responsum which came to be known as the “Driving Teshuvah.”  Though the teshuvah’s agenda was much broader in scope (Agus was really trying to confront, through  a halakhic lens, the crisis of suburban sprawl and its implications for the dissolution of American Jewish communities) it is often debated on the merits of his legal reasoning.  But perhaps we ought to reconsider Agus’ original concerns in light of early twenty-first century urban renewal.  

Leaving for another discussion the particulars of whether one ought to be igniting an internal combustion engine on Shabbat, I think the more salient question is: what does it mean to “commute” to community?  If synagogues (as I believe they should be) are a critical anchor in the life of a Jewish person, shouldn’t proximity to a shul be one of the factors near the top of our decks when selecting a place to live?  

If urban life is, at least partially, about wanting to shrink the geographic radius of daily living — if we truly like the idea of walking to parks or neighbors’ houses, cafes or the dry-cleaner — shouldn’t we also rethink the value of walking to shul?

The Vocabulary of Community Building

In my last post, struggling to describe locally-aimed financial support, I determined we need a new term: “locanthropy.”  I talked about the value of volunteering and giving locally, supporting one’s own neighborhood as a primary interest.  Contrast this with another approach, the Not in My Neighborhood attitude detailed in Antero Pietila’s fine book.  During the decades detailed in the book, neighborhood transformation was often relatively swift from White to Jewish to Black and rich to poor and often from good to bad to worse.  Phenomena like “red-lining” and “block-busting” were critical factors in urban decay during an era when race and class defined much of Baltimore living.

Cities now have to contend with a different trend, and this one has a dictionary-endorsed word: gentrification.  There’s an important distinction here.  Urban renewal, revitalization and neighborhood renaissance are good things, great things!  But, in this writer’s humble opinion, great care should be taken not to reap the benefits of increased property value, better schools or improved amenities with a callous eye or ear toward one’s neighbors who have been living in depressed conditions, in dilapidated homes or on the street.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my previous Chicago neighborhood was fairly upscale with wonderful amenities.  An important anchor in the community, however, was the Lakeview Pantry which provided food, clothing, case-management and home-delivery to the needy.  Walking by this beautiful, well-run, and (sadly) often packed facility was a critical reminder of the income disparity that existed in our own neighborhood and in the city of Chicago as a whole.

I was saddened to read a story in yesterday’s Sun Paper that detailed the debate over whether the Beans and Bread soup kitchen in Upper Fells Point ought to expand and improve its facilities.  According to the paper, two neighborhood organizations are fighting the expansion claiming that it will attract more homeless people and further depress housing values. I don’t know the players, the organization’s history or the motivations of the parties, so I don’t feel qualified to address this particular dispute.  Yet, similar debates have taken and are taking place all over the U.S. Homeowners, some of whom invested their life savings several years ago at the top of the market are understandably concerned about property value.  But neighborhoods are organisms with a thousand symbiotic components.  Wealth-building might be a benefit of savvy investiture, but it must not be its goal; too many lives are at stake.  The Torah tells us: “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow — in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings” (Deu. 24:19).   This mitzvah (called leket/gleaning) cannot be done online or by commuting to some other “problem area” of the city.  This is, by definition, in our own backyards where the hungry are invited to walk into our fields and glean the harvest from our crops.

In order to lessen hunger we must first confront it — not just the knowledge of it but its victims, and confronting the hungry is bittersweet because, on the plus side, it sensitizes us to the reality of poverty in our midst.  It might be, though I haven’t seen any conclusive data, that well-run and effective soup kitchens or food pantries can lessen property values.  But relocating them, kicking them out of the neighborhood, desensitizes us and allows us to devalue human life.  True gentrification can be functionally opposite of locanthropy.   It is taking from one’s neighbors in order to create a climate in which it is easier to replace them.  To explain it another way would be naive at best, criminally negligent at worst.