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?

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