Will Jews Again Abandon American Urban Neighborhoods?

By Stuart Schoenfeld

Does this watershed moment mean a dismal future for urban economies and city life? Current forecasts include some that are fairly grim. More working from home means empty office space, less patronage for downtown retail and fewer jobs for city residents who are low income service workers. Sports events, concerts, restaurants, theatres, tourism and street festivals will be curtailed and less appealing. City governments, more so than others, will face budgetary crises, and cut back on services and employees. All this will intensify income inequality, with poverty and homelessness concentrated in cities. Racial inequities will become more apparent and urban race relations more fraught.

An urban downturn would contrast with the impressive rebound of many American cities in the decades that followed their hollowing out in the 1960s and 70s. Beyond the serious implications for American society in general, what happens in cities has implications for Jewish life. Jews who live and work in cities are enmeshed in their issues, as are Jewish institutions inside cities and in the larger metropolitan areas.

A current article in Contemporary Jewry demonstrates the growth over decades of a substantial Jewish population working in city centers and living in urban neighborhoods. Thriving cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Washington DC and Atlanta have become nodes of the transnantional professional service economy of finance, higher education, medicine, legal services, technology and culture. Jews, highly concentrated in professional service occupations, have moved to urban neighborhoods to be near work. As well, many urban Orthodox neighborhoods have remained stable or increased. Even though there has been migration to some suburbs and small towns, natural increase, institutional density and the pedestrian scale of urban neighborhoods support an Orthodox presence, particularly in New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Chicago.

In most places, the urban Jewish population has grown and grown faster than the Jewish population of the metropolitan area as a whole. The research also showed that it was very common for Jewish population to become a larger percentage of the total urban population, making Jews and Jewish institutions that much more connected to the city as whole. The urban Jewish population tends to be significantly younger than the Jewish population in general. The younger profile of urban Jews reflects both young professionals without children and the higher than average number of children in Orthodox families.

The research found that many urban legacy congregations have survived and flourished. New congregations and affiliates of the Jewish Emergent Network have been established. JCCs and Jewish education, from early childhood through adult education, have thrived. Jewish cultural events – film and music festivals, book readings, concerts – have become a common feature of urban life.

It is unclear how the unprecedented lockdowns responding to the Corona virus will affect the urban Jewish population and urban Jewish institutions. Many have adapted to working from home. Health concerns may keep them from returning to public transit, busy sidewalks, elevators and offices. Many may be reluctant to enjoy the urban amenities of restaurants, theaters and museums. With urban costs increasing, inequalities intensified, race relations more fraught, and amenities less accessible, suburbs and small towns may become more appealing. Even before the virus lockdown, there were proposals, including one in eJewish Philanthropy to organize Jews to move in groups from cities with increasingly unaffordable real estate. Another contribution to eJewish Philanthropy includes a proposal to shift resources into child friendly suburbs to which former Boston urban Jews are perceived to be moving.

On the other hand, urban Jewish life may be resilient. Staying put has advantages for individuals, communities and institutions. This applies especially to the stringent Orthodox. The challenge of replicating dense institutional networks and residential enclaves would be enormous. Reasons for staying put also apply to highly educated professionals. In addition to condos and townhouses, cities contain residential neighborhoods that are appealing places to raise a family. Even with many working remotely, professional personnel on site will be needed by medical centers, universities, financial centers and cultural institutions.

Adaptations that cities are making and contemplating are incentives to remain. Closing streets to allow restaurants to expand outdoors creates more of the convivial car-free spaces that urban utopians love. Vastly increased travel by bike suggests urban evolution into more humane traffic patterns. Converting surplus office space to residences could lower expensive housing.

There is also a value dimension for highly educated professionals, including the Jews among them. Highly educated professionals are the group most likely to value diversity, social justice, cultural amenities, and public spaces. Tikkun olam, which has widespread resonance in contemporary Jewish life, takes on a particular relevance in urban settings of concentrated racialized poverty, controversial policing and displacement due to gentrification. It is common to find urban institutions – congregations, Jewish Emergent Communities, social justice organizations and others – who have articulated a mandate to be engaged with their neighbors and with urban struggles for racial justice. Leaving the city, for both individuals and institutions, may be felt as leaving behind allies who do not have the choice. As well, the suburban disincentives remain – car dependence, withdrawal into the private sphere, and the disconnects from diversity and history.

In the past few decades, Jews have chosen, more than other groups, to work in central cities and live in urban neighborhoods. It may be premature to encourage Jews to give up on cities. Rather than fleeing, Jews and Jewish institutions may respond to this uncertain moment by taking part in urban adaptation and reinvention.

Stuart Schoenfeld is the author of “Jews, Jewish institutions and the construction of identity in changing American cities and urban neighborhoods” in the current edition of Contemporary Jewry.