On Aug. 8, the online magazine The Atlantic Cities ran an article called “Why America’s Religious Jews May Not Be Able to Move Back Downtown,” focusing on modern Orthodox Jews. Modern Orthodox Jews’ outlook favors Torah and secular education, professional achievement, and cultural interaction to varying degrees, as opposed to more insular “black hat,” “yeshivish,” “charedi,” or chasidic ways of life.
Despite an urban renaissance, the author posits, “many Orthodox communities are stuck in suburbia” because of religious infrastructure, such as the eruv boundaries that allow them to carry (and push strollers) in the public domain on Shabbat.
Zalman Alpert thinks that is nonsense. After all, some urban neighborhoods do have an eruv – among them Manhattan’s Washington Heights and downtown New Haven, Conn.
“The reason modern Orthodox Jews will not go back to urban areas are chiefly three,” Alpert said. An American Jewish historian and writer, he has been a reference librarian at Yeshiva University for 30 years.
“First, most modern Orthodox Jews are on the high career track and few are what we call ‘hipsters.’ These are not the people who ‘colonize’ the urban areas. Much of the urban renewal in the regular world is propelled by older singles and gay couples. Second, the housing stock in the urban areas does not have space for the modern Orthodox family of three to four kids. Third, the institutions exist in the suburbs – and no one wants to be the outsider.”
Alpert, who lives in Washington Heights, is an outsider. He has observed the evolution of North Jersey’s Jewish suburbs – particularly Teaneck, where his brother and many YU colleagues have made their homes – through frequent visits from the other side of the Hudson.
Recently, the Jewish Press featured a wide-ranging interview with Alpert, “The Evolution of American Orthodoxy”; it is available online.
Last week, Alpert shared his insights on North Jersey modern Orthodox suburbia with The Jewish Standard.
“Bergen County is a major new and different sort of modern Orthodox center. It probably has the largest modern Orthodox community in the metro area,” Alpert said. “A good part of the residents are graduates of YU. Since the beginning of the 1980s there has been a tremendous growth period for Teaneck, and that represents a new phenomenon in modern Orthodox culture.”
Alpert, 62, and his two brothers were raised in New Haven, which had two large modern Orthodox synagogues. Other New England cities, such as Springfield, Mass., had similar communities, but this kind of community has all but disappeared, he noted.
“Until the advent of Teaneck and a few similar communities, all that most modern Orthodox wanted was to live in a large city with a modern Orthodox synagogue and perhaps a day school. Now modern Orthodoxy is on the ropes in big cities, partially because most of the children are moving to Bergen County or Israel when they get married,” Alpert said. “Many people want a choice of synagogues, a choice of day schools, and a choice of kosher restaurants.”
Alpert is not anti-suburb. He characterizes his brother’s family’s move from the Upper East Side in the 1990s as “a positive thing. Manhattan is a culture built around large apartment buildings and large synagogues, and it’s missing a certain amount of heimishkeit. Moving to Teaneck gives you much more sense of community. It’s a very impressive operation in terms of kashrut supervision and organizations like Project Ezrah [which assists unemployed Orthodox families]. The Shabbos atmosphere is wonderful in a way that certainly didn’t exist in places like New Haven when I was growing up.”
At the same time, Alpert observes, Teaneck has become a sort of modern Orthodox ghetto.
“A lot of younger modern Orthodox people went to modern Orthodox schools and modern Orthodox camps, and maybe even YU – a modern Orthodox college – having minimal interaction with other kinds of Jews or with wider American culture. That can be good, since culture has become very promiscuous, but we are living in the United States and people really need to know how to get along with wider culture and society. Many modern Orthodox are very successful in terms of professional careers, but obliviousness to the wider community is a phenomenon.”
Teaneck has had two modern Orthodox mayors in recent years, and Englewood’s Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is running for Congress. Alpert surmises that religiously observant politicians enter the fray mainly to protect their own community’s interests – for instance, zoning variances for synagogues.
Speaking of synagogues, Alpert continues, Teaneck’s dozen modern Orthodox shuls, and a growing number in other Bergen County communities such as Bergenfield, Englewood, and Fair Lawn, is also a new phenomenon in American Orthodoxy.
“Greater Boston doesn’t have more than seven or eight modern Orthodox synagogues and not all of them are that big,” he said. “That’s because there are probably more modern Orthodox Jews in Teaneck than in all of New England.”
As Orthodox Jewry shifts to the right – as evidenced by the “semi-charedi” young families moving to Passaic and Bergenfield – Alpert says Teaneck increasingly will find itself as role model and haven for adherents of right-centrist Orthodoxy, perhaps even attracting left-leaning products of the Lakewood or Brooklyn yeshiva system.
In the meantime, he observes, younger Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews are slowly leaving. “I tend to doubt that in Teaneck or even Englewood you’re getting large numbers of non-Orthodox Jews buying homes. It’s also true in Queens, which was once the center of Conservative Jewry, with several dozen large synagogues. Now there are very few left.”
He brings as an example the Jewish Center of Teaneck. In June 2011, the then-unaffiliated Conservative synagogue voted to install a mechitza in its main sanctuary to separate men from women, effectively putting the final stamp on the synagogue’s gradual transition to Orthodoxy.
“It’s a question of synagogue survival, of meeting the community’s needs rather than dying out with their principles intact,” Alpert said. “As the Orthodox community grows, other Conservative synagogues are facing the same debate. They’ve got a large physical plant with fewer and fewer members. They must decide how to react.”
Alpert concludes that “the world is a merry-go-round. I remember in the 1950s, Orthodox synagogues had to meet the needs of a community that demanded removal of the mechitza, adding English to the services, and perhaps using a microphone. This happened all over the country.
“Now the wheel has moved the other way.”