Religion and urbanism

MLewyn's picture

(Cross-posted, with some additions, from my personal blog). 


Recently, someone asked me an interesting question: what type of Jews are most likely to live in cities as opposed to suburbs?  For example, are Orthodox Jews (the most religiously traditional ones) more likely than other Jews to live intown because they value walkability, or in suburbs because their large families need more space?  Is the aging Conservative movement more suburban than other movements because younger Americans tend to prefer city life?  I don’t think I have the resources to do a full demographic survey, or even to dig up accurate information, since there are not that many cities that have recently conducted surveys of their Jewish population. 

However, I can do an informal survey of mid-sized cities I know something about (excluding the most vibrant cities, which have all kinds of Jews downtown, and super-suburbanized cities like Jacksonville, where there really is no organized Jewish presence in the presprawl parts of the city).  So let’s look at a few places:

Washington- In close-in Washington (within two miles of the White House) most congregations seem to be Orthodox or nearly so.  Kesher Israel is the closest full-service congregation, while Rosh Pina and DC Minyan straddle the boundary between Orthodox and Conservative.  In addition, there is a Chabad* in Dupont Circle.  On the other hand, in the “outer city” (between downtown and the city limits) Jewish life becomes more diverse: there are two Conservative shuls (Adas Israel in Cleveland Park and Tifereth Israel in Shepherd Park), three Reform in upper NW DC (Temple Micah, Washington Hebrew, Temple Sinai) and Orthodox Ohev Shalom (also in Shepherd Park).   So I would say there is a strong Orthodox presence close in, but there is a strong non-Orthodox presence in places that aren’t downtown but aren’t quite the suburbs.  (Having said that, the red hot center of Orthodoxy in Washington is in close-in suburbs like Rockville and Silver Spring).   

Atlanta- In Atlanta, unlike Washington, there is no downtown Jewish life.  In the “intown but not downtown” neighborhoods of Midtown, Virginia Highland and Morningside 2-4 miles from downtown, there is a fairly even denominational split: Chabad (Orthodox), Anshei Sfard (ditto), Shearith Israel (Conservative) and the Temple (Reform).  Again, the Orthodox heartland is in the inner ring suburbs of Toco Hills and Sandy Springs.

Buffalo- There is no downtown Jewish life, but here the liberal branches of Judaism tend to be a bit closer in.  Beth Zion (Reform) is two miles or so from downtown, Beth Abraham (Conservative) is a bit further out, and the Orthodox synagogues start five miles out and go from there.  However, most Jews live in the suburb of Amherst.

Cleveland- When I lived in Cleveland there was only one synagogue within the city limits, Beth Israel (Reform) on the West Side several miles from downtown. However, there is now a Chabad at Case Western at the eastern edge of the city.  But from the webpage its not clear to me that they even have a Saturday morning minyan, so I’m not sure they count as the functional equivalent of a shul.  In the suburbs, there is a sharp division: the inner suburb of Cleveland Heights has a strong Orthodox presence, but more liberal denominations have moved to outer suburbs.

St. Louis- The only congregation of any sort in the city of St. Louis is Central Reform Congregation (Reform) in the Central West End a few miles from owntown.  The inner suburbs are pretty diverse though, with a strong Orthodox presence in University City and a conservative synagogue in Richmond Heights

Seattle- Seattle has two synagogues almost right next to each other about a mile from downtown: one Orthodox, one Reform.  In the “intown but not downtown” areas about 4-6 miles out, there is a real mix of congregations: Orthodox synagogues clustered in the Seward Park area of Southeast Seattle, a Reform congregation in Southwest Seattle, one or two of everything in North Seattle.  

Miami- According to its website, Chabad now has a minyan at 11th and Brickell in the heart of downtown Miami (!) – though I don’t know how often they actually have the minyan. Temple Israel (Reform) and Beth David (Conservative) are a mile and a half or so from downtown.  The dominant Orthodox areas are Miami Beach and North Miami Beach (essentially 50s suburbia).

There does seem to be a few patterns.  Many cities don't have any synagogues downtown (that is, within a mile of City Hall)- but where there is a downtown synagogue, it is often Orthodox- usually either a new Chabad House or a old synagogue that never moved to the suburbs.  Midtown areas (2-5 miles from downtown) vary a lot.  Where there is more than one midtown synagogue, there is no clear pattern: midtown synagogues can be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or a mix of the same.  But in weak Jewish communities where there is only one midtown synagogue (Cleveland, St. Louis) it is Reform. 

*For those of you unfamliar with Chabad, it is an Orthodox outreach organization that establishes mini-congregations, often in neighborhoods without other synagogues. 


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