Navigate to Community section

Rooted Cosmopolitans

Why Jews need the city—or, a Jewish urbanist agenda

Michael Lewyn
May 03, 2021
Tim Boxer/Getty Images
American Jews parade a Torah through the streets of Manhattan, Sept. 12, 1971Tim Boxer/Getty Images
Tim Boxer/Getty Images
American Jews parade a Torah through the streets of Manhattan, Sept. 12, 1971Tim Boxer/Getty Images

COVID-19 has generated a considerable amount of controversy over the future of cities. Some commentators say that because many white-collar Americans can work from home without commuting to downtown offices, they will choose low-density sprawl over dense downtowns. And for many, this is a perfectly fine trade-off. But what about for a particular ethnic group, which happens to be mine, and which happens to be identified, particularly in the United States, with the urban experience? Would this alleged trend, this flight from the city, be good for American Jewry? If not, is there anything we can do to blunt its impact? My answers are “no” and “yes”—“no” because Jewish practice is easier in walkable environments, and “yes” because Americans can make our neighborhoods more walkable by supporting a variety of zoning and street design reforms. We all need cities—we all need to walk more, pollute less, and have more human contact. But American Jews in particular need cities. And if we move toward smarter policy, we can have them.

To start off, let’s look at the status quo. In some metro areas, Jewish suburbanization occurred long ago. For example, St. Louis has only one Reform synagogue within its city limits; all of the region’s other 20-odd synagogues are in suburbia. But at least many of these synagogues are in walkable, transit-accessible suburbs like University City, home of Washington University. Kansas City, at the other end of Missouri, is even more suburbanized. There are a couple of Reform synagogues left within the city, but the overwhelming majority of synagogues (and the region’s only day school) have moved to suburbs in Johnson County, Kansas, 15 or so miles from downtown. In these suburbs, many buses do not run on nights or weekends; the day school is in the middle of an office park, over a mile from the nearest Reform synagogue.

This day school is not unusual; suburban Jewish institutions are often in highly un-walkable environments. For example, in my hometown of Atlanta, two or three of the largest Orthodox synagogues are surrounded by residential subdivisions with no sidewalks. And in Jacksonville, Florida, where I lived for several years, the most heavily Jewish neighborhood was bisected by San Jose Boulevard, an eight-lane minihighway. Two years after I left, a member of my synagogue was struck and killed by a car on the way to Kol Nidre—by a driver with an expired license, who had killed a child on San Jose four years earlier.

On the other hand, in some cities a large proportion of the Jewish community lives in walkable urban places. In Pittsburgh, the Jewish community is centered around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, just a few miles from downtown. Almost all of the region’s Orthodox congregations are in Squirrel Hill or nearby Greenfield, as are almost half of its Conservative synagogues and a Reform congregation. The website, which rates neighborhood walkability by examining how many destinations are within walking distance of an address, gives the neighborhood’s two largest Orthodox synagogues walkscores in the 80s and 90s. And of course larger cities like New York and Boston have lots of urban Jewish options, although housing shortages price many Jews out of these cities.

The majority of Philadelphia-area Jews live in suburbs, but over 40% still live in the city of Philadelphia. Similarly, Chicago’s most prominent Jewish community is in suburban Skokie, but there are still significant Jewish communities in city neighborhoods such as Lakeview and West Rogers Park. Even in some suburb-dominated regions, the growth of Chabad has given new opportunities to downtown Jews: For example, when I lived in Cleveland the only congregation within the city limits was a Reform congregation at the city’s edge, but there is now a downtown Chabad.

In sum, the geography of American Jewry varies widely: Some communities are heavily suburbanized, while others are diverse and becoming more so. Dense Northeastern cities such as New York and Philadelphia tend to have large downtown and near-downtown urban Jewish communities, while in declining Midwestern cities, Jewish life is more suburbanized.

What do Jews gain from living in places like Squirrel Hill, as opposed to places like Johnson County, Kansas? From a traditionalist perspective, much of suburbia is a nonstarter. Under Orthodox Jewish law, driving or using public transportation on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden. (For Conservative Jews, it is discouraged but allowed for religious purposes; Reform and Reconstructionist Jews generally don’t see it as forbidden.) Where one cannot easily walk, compliance with Jewish law becomes more difficult, sometimes impossible. For example, in Atlanta, the Conservative synagogue I used to attend was in an area where zoning requires each house to sit on just over two-thirds of an acre of land. Thus, far fewer people live within walking distance of the synagogue than in Squirrel Hill, where large houses coexist with houses that sit on 1/9 of an acre or even less.

The suburban lifestyle increasingly strikes many Jews as, well, un-Jewish.

And if you can’t walk to shul on Shabbos, there are other things you probably can’t do as well, such as walk to fellow congregants’ houses for Shabbos or Yom Tov meals­—let alone have a few drinks on Purim without endangering others by driving. All of these things become much more difficult if there isn’t enough housing near shul to go around, or if the housing only suits some people (as is true in areas zoned exclusively for single-family houses).

Admittedly, there is plenty of Jewish life in suburbs—even Orthodox life. Just ask the Jews in the Orthodox enclave of Lower Merion, outside Philadelphia. But because of low population density, fewer people can live in these suburbs than in cities or in more compact suburban towns. And the people that do live within walking distance of shuls often have to risk their lives to walk anywhere, because (as noted above) many American neighborhoods are not designed for people on foot.

Then there is the fact that the suburban lifestyle increasingly strikes many Jews as, well, un-Jewish. Some Jews try to heal the world through environmentalism, but suburban sprawl hardly benefits the environment; 29% of U.S. carbon emissions come from transportation, primarily cars and trucks. So if Jews (or for that matter, anyone else) really want to address climate change, they should drive less—and that means living and worshipping in places where they don’t have to drive to work or to most errands. Some of us try to mitigate this problem by driving electric cars, or by focusing on some other environmental cause such as plastic pollution. But even fuel-efficient cars create environmental problems. For example, a significant chunk of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans come from car tires—pollution that would exist even if all cars ran on solar energy. (A study by Dutch scholar Pieter Jan Kole estimates that 10% of ocean plastic pollution comes from tires, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts that number at 28%.) The negative environmental impact of cars is not limited to climate change or plastic pollution; cars typically emit a wide range of other pollutants, such as particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

Car culture also necessitates having the means to own a car; by its nature, it excludes poorer Jews, who may have to get by on foot or with public transit. So car-dependent development is also harmful from a social justice perspective: People too old, disabled or poor to drive are essentially shut out of civic life, and people who can just barely afford a car are impoverished by the need to pay for those cars in order to reach jobs. Even from a public health perspective, suburban sprawl fails: In car-dependent regions like Kansas City, twice as many people die in car crashes as in more walkable New York. And when people cannot walk to any reasonable destination, they have fewer opportunities to exercise and are more likely to suffer from obesity-related illnesses.

So what can we do about this? Obviously, as individuals we can try to live in walkable places—but that’s not very helpful if you live in a region where most synagogues are in car-dependent suburbs. And besides, as Jews we are trained to seek collective answers, to ask questions about where a community, indeed an entire people, is heading. We are thus positioned—I would say called—to ask a more interesting question: What public policies make it easiest for Jews, and for all our fellow human beings, to live in walkable communities? It is an urgent, a religiously urgent, question.

There is, of course, no one answer. If you live in a prosperous, walkable area like New York’s Upper West Side, walkability is easy; the hard part is affording the neighborhood. Of course, one common political answer is “affordable housing,” which politicians often define as government-subsidized housing for the poor. But this cause, although arguably a noble one, will be useless for those of us, including perhaps a majority of Jews, who are not rich enough to afford top-dollar housing prices but not poor enough for subsidized housing.

Instead, Jews need to support more private housing. Increasing supply means eliminating zoning laws that limit the amount of housing units that can be placed in a building or on a parcel of urban land. Why? Because of the law of supply and demand: More supply of anything lowers prices. Although some commentators suggest that the law of supply and demand somehow does not apply to urban housing, the events of the past year disprove that idea: As demand for housing in Manhattan declined, rents took a nosedive. Similarly, in San Francisco rents decreased by 35% in 2020, according to Nevertheless, the city’s rents are still impressively high: My Craigslist search for one-bedroom, high-rise apartments showed rents ranging from $2,200 to $4,220, while a comparable search in Chicago and Philadelphia (and even Manhattan) showed apartments renting for as little as $1,300 to $1,400.

Why is San Francisco so expensive? San Francisco’s zoning prohibits most buildings taller than two stories outside downtown, and the city requires voter approval for buildings near the downtown waterfront. Moreover, even construction that complies with the city’s zoning code is subject to discretionary review by the city bureaucracy, while in other cities anything that complies with the zoning code can be built. As a result, the city’s housing supply has not kept up with demand; only 5.4% of the city’s housing supply was built after 2010, less than half the rate of other growing cities such as Dallas (10.5%), Denver (12.5%), or Charlotte (13%). The city’s housing prices exclude middle-income people, which in turn may affect the size of the Jewish population. Many suburbs of San Francisco are similarly expensive, a fact that might explain why the entire Bay Area has a small Jewish population for such a high-opportunity area. In a region of 7 million people, there are only 350,000 Jews. By contrast, the city of Philadelphia has about half as many Jews (162,000) although the city of Philadelphia has only one-fourth the population of the Bay Area.

The most common argument against new market-rate housing is that new housing is unaffordable to the middle class. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When government constricts supply through regulation, both older and newer apartments will be more expensive. For example, in Manhattan less than 4% of all apartments were built after 2010. According to a recent Zillow search, the cheapest, post-2010, two-bedroom unit in Manhattan rented for about $2,500, and the cheapest post-2010 two-bedroom in the wealthier part of the borough (south of 100th Street) rented for almost $3,000. By contrast, in Dallas, 10.5% of housing units were built after 2010—and not surprisingly, new housing as well as old housing is far cheaper. The cheapest, post-2010, two-bedroom apartment there rents for $1,325. Of course, Dallas has more land than Manhattan, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Nevertheless, if enough new housing is built, even new housing will be less expensive than it otherwise would be.

More important, because most housing at any given time is not new, the cost of new housing is far less important than the effect of new housing upon older housing. Where there is lots of new market-rate housing, the most affluent customers gobble it up, causing vacancies in older units, making those older units cheaper for everyone. By contrast, when less new housing is built, even older houses and apartments are more expensive, creating a vicious circle: Housing is expensive, causing politicians to oppose new housing because it will be expensive, causing housing to be even more expensive.

But that’s New York and other urbs. What if you already live in a suburb, or even in a suburblike city neighborhood? In such places, your challenge often will be walkability rather than affordability. There are three keys to making a neighborhood walkable: street design, density, and diversity of activities.

A Jewish urbanist agenda should be focused on making walkable urban cores more affordable, and on making suburbs more walkable.

All of these are useful, if not necessary, to a well-lived Jewish life. If streets are designed in a way that makes walking safe and comfortable, it is safer and more pleasant to walk to shul. If the neighborhood is dense enough to allow hundreds of people to live within walking distance of the shul, then the Jewish community will be larger and more observant. And if the neighborhood includes stores as well as apartments, people can walk to the stores as well. But how can suburbs be retrofitted to achieve these goals?

As noted above, eight-lane roads such as Jacksonville’s San Jose Boulevard make walking uncomfortable, even dangerous. So one important reform is to design streets for slower traffic, by making traffic lanes narrower and less numerous. Where a street is already dangerously wide, it can be narrowed by the addition of mid-block pedestrian islands and bicycle lanes that are protected from auto traffic. In Jacksonville, the death of a congregant walking to High Holiday services should have been a call to action for the Jewish community, making Jews the primary constituency for traffic-calming—as we should be everywhere. And while some might think of traffic activism and walkability as causes of the young and hip, I’d argue that the more elderly a local Jewish community, the more active the Jews should be in traffic-calming advocacy. Older pedestrians walk more slowly, and thus have less time to cross traffic-clogged streets. A study by urban planner Peter Swift showed that 36-foot-wide residential streets have more than three times as many accidents as 24-foot-wide streets—and because travel lanes are typically 12 feet wide, many commercial streets are far wider than 36 feet.

Even if commercial streets are made for walking, they will not be very appealing if zoning requires half-acre or quarter-acre lots: In such neighborhoods, only a few households will live within walking distance of synagogues, schools, or other desirable destinations. Moreover, in low-density areas, very few people live within walking distance of a bus stop, which means most people cannot access other neighborhoods without a car. Conversely, where zoning allows more compact neighborhoods, more people can walk to synagogues, schools, and shops. Thus, zoning codes should be amended to allow more houses and apartments per block.

And speaking of buses, good public transit is indispensable for a complete Jewish community. According to, the average car owner pays $878 per month per car when all expenses are taken into consideration. So when suburban density is so low that public transit is minimal or nonexistent, people who can’t afford to spend thousands per year on car ownership are effectively excluded from the community—not a result consistent with Judaism’s historical emphasis on charity. The Torah states that fallen fruit should be left for the “poor and the stranger” (Lev. 19:10) and that some housing should “lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat.” (Exodus 23:11). These verses seem to me to be somehow inconsistent with land use laws that create middle- and upper-class monocultures. Car-dependent development excludes not only the poor, but also those too old, young and disabled to drive, creating “communities” that are limited to working-age affluent families.

Finally, zoning should allow more of a mix of land uses. Large chunks of most cities and suburbs are zoned for nothing but single-family housing. In Jacksonville, for example, some “house-only” zones are a mile or two wide, ensuring that many of their residents do not live within walking distance of anything other than more houses. Zoning ordinances should allow some form of shopping every few blocks, so more people can live within walking distance of more destinations. Where mixed-use zoning is combined with moderate-to-high density, shops that cater to Jewish needs can be within walking distance of Jewish neighborhoods; for example, walkable suburbs like Cedarhurst, New York, which has 9,730 people per square mile, higher than most U.S. central cities, are full of kosher restaurants and Judaica shops near suburban houses. Hasidic small towns (such as New Square and Kiryas Joel in exurban New York) tend to be even more compact: Both New Square and Kiryas Joel have just under 25,000 people per square mile, a level of density comparable to outer-borough New York neighborhoods. Because these towns are so small, nearly everything is within walking distance of everything else, even though some blocks are exclusively residential. These are not cities, not urban in the conventional sense; they are properly seen as small towns, with a density and walkability that make them more congenial to Jewish life than most suburbs.

It could be argued that in some regions (especially those with population-losing central cities, such as St. Louis and Cleveland) there is very little Jewish demand for city life. Nevertheless, my walkability agenda is still relevant to these places, because even metros with weak cities often have walkable suburbs, such as Cleveland Heights near Cleveland, University City near St. Louis, and Kenmore near Buffalo. In these places, we can focus our energies on preserving the walkable suburbs we have, and making the rest more walkable.

So, more walkable neighborhoods improve Jewish life. But these policies are desirable from a secular standpoint as well. As noted above, if people have the opportunity to drive less, they pollute less. And if jobs and shops are accessible on foot or by public transit, people too poor, disabled, old or young to drive can reach them more easily. Suburban sprawl increases car crashes and reduces Americans’ opportunity to exercise. And because suburban sprawl is dependent on restrictive zoning rules that prohibit communities from being compact enough to be walkable, it should be anathema to the freedom-loving libertarian, too.

In sum, a Jewish urbanist agenda should be focused on making walkable urban cores more affordable, and on making suburbs more walkable. Although some pro-walkability policies (such as narrower streets) might require some public investment, a lot can be done with less regulation: that is, allowing landowners to build more apartments and houses on their land, and to create jobs and shops within walking distance of those houses. But first we have to care, and as Jews, we should.

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.