The shul around the corner
Over the years NJJN has covered several stories about minyanim that meet in ostensibly private homes, and that inexorably morph into full-fledged synagogues. The stories usually play out at zoning board meetings, where opponents fret about the traffic and noise, and supporters complain about NIMBY-ism with an overlay of intolerance.
I live in a town with a growing Orthodox population, and such controversies are becoming increasingly frequent. The latest, according to the Jewish Standard, concerns a house owned by a self-described “nonprofit organization that provides religious and community activities and counseling.” Neighbors understandably suspected that was another way of saying “synagogue.” Organizers seemed to deny that at first, but their tactics are shifting, and now they have “applied for several variances from the zoning board,” which would allow them to designate part of the property as a house of worship.
I’m ambivalent about these disputes. On one hand, I’m a shul-goer, and Shabbat observant to boot. Because I walk to shul, I like and need a neighborhood where the synagogues are wedged in right among the residences (unlike some classic suburban synagogues, where they’re set back on campuses or zoned away from housing stock). That’s how I picked the town.
On the other hand, I don’t like the way some congregations surreptitiously set up shop and in effect dare neighbors and local authorities to dislodge them — which is awfully (or blessedly, depending on your point of view) difficult under federal laws that privilege religious institutions. When neighbors complain, the organizers ask disingenuously, “You mean I can’t worship in my own home?” Later they’ll seek permits and such from the townships to function as a synagogue. It feels sneaky, and it’s no way to launch a religious institution.
On the third hand, I’ve also heard arguments that if neighbors and zoning boards were more flexible, congregations wouldn’t have to resort to subterfuge. Like I said, I’m ambivalent.
I’m no expert on the law, but I am an expert on living near a major synagogue with multiple minyanim (not my own). To the degree that my experience helps anybody in this debate, here goes:
On a typical weekday morning, there is a rush for on-street parking as men pull up for morning minyan, usually between 7 and 8:15 a.m. And by rush, I mean rush — guys zip into spaces, grab their tallitot and tefillin, and jog up the block. I’d prefer for safety’s sake that they slow down.
Since it’s early morning, my cars are usually already on the street or in the driveway, and since I’m not expecting any guests, it’s no great inconvenience, except the one time in nine years a shmegege blocked my driveway.
As for evening minyanim, it mirrors the morning rush, but not as much, and I rarely have parking or traffic issues.
On Sunday mornings there is often a simha of some sort, or more relaxed davening — two hours, say. Again, the street spaces tend to fill up, but it’s at an hour that doesn’t inconvenience me.
On Shabbat, there is no auto traffic at all, of course, but a ton of foot traffic. Sometimes this spills into the streets, which has led to complaints in the area from drivers. (The walkers claim that the sidewalks are in need of repair, which is sometimes true, but I detect a sense of ownership and swagger on the part of the walkers. Often they — oh, I’ll come clean: we —project a sense that “This is Shabbat, and the streets of this neighborhood are for walkers.”)
Also on Saturdays and holy days, there’s usually a lot of kids playing rambunctiously in the synagogue’s small playground, sometimes a big catering tent set up in the parking lot, and, especially after services let out, clumps of people chatting it up on the sidewalks. I love the post-prayer bustle. But I don’t blame the people who live in a residential neighborhood and didn’t bargain on a weekly block party right next door.
So that’s my experience. For me, living near a shul is no biggie. But I can’t pretend I’m not biased. I live a shul life, and appreciate the rhythms and, let’s be honest, inconvenience of Jewish celebration in public places. I prefer the almost urban street life in my corner of suburbia to the deathly quiet cul-de-sacs where neighbors nod at neighbors through frosted car windows.
But that’s just my preference, and I can’t impose it on neighbors who have different ideas about the place they’ve also been calling home, perhaps before the synagogues opened for business. I’d like to think that’s not an unbridgeable gap — and that a little friendly outreach, an attempt by shuls and shul-goers to educate their neighbors about our folkways, would go a long way to easing the inevitable tensions.
Or perhaps it won’t, and the neighbors are a lot less tolerant of differences than my naive heart will admit. But we’ll never know if the only time we meet is under the harsh neon lights of a municipal meeting room.