Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Jewish Neighborhoods for Global Citizens


For people like me who grew up with Mr. Rogers, the word “neighborhood” conjures up a close-knit community revolving around a specific place and its people. But the reality of my experience of neighborhoods today could not be more different. The possibility of living in a neighborhood linked by multigenerational relationships, physical proximity, and shared sense of community with actual neighbors is no more than a daydream I often share when visiting old friends and family members scattered around the country. Yet, there is little chance that we will be able to recreate the kinds of physical neighborhoods we remember from our childhoods (whether real or on TV).

Instead, we are driven from urban centers by real estate costs and drawn to job opportunities across the country. Few of us count on remaining in the same job or city for more than a few years. Even when we do settle down, increasingly, we find ourselves scattered far from our families and close friends. And if we have the resources (time and money), we spend our free time on airplanes traveling to see one another instead of investing in local communities. Social, economic, and demographic forces encourage us to have a sense of global citizenship rather than a commitment to neighborhood investment. As a result, it is unlikely that we, and certainly subsequent generations, will replicate the neighborhood models of our parents and grandparents. Even for older generations and empty nesters, the pattern of moving away from suburban neighborhoods toward urban centers or retirement communities accelerates the dissolution of place as the foundational anchor of communities.

Despite these changes, however, Jewish communal institutions – such as the federation system, the denominational movements, political/advocacy organizations, and Hillel – have yet to fully recognize that there are fewer traditional neighborhoods characterized by family dynasties, brick-and-mortar Jewish institutions, and cradle-to-grave clergy who can pepper their wedding talks with stories about the groom’s bar mitzvah.

This issue of Sh’ma, focusing on “neighborhood,” provides a much-needed opportunity to consider the changing meaning of neighborhood and what this trend means for American Jewish life. I want to open up the conversation by looking at three questions that highlight the changing realities of Jewish neighborhoods:

  • How will neighborhoods define themselves?
  • Why value neighborhoods?
  • What constitutes sustainable neighborhoods?

As the role of physical space in shaping patterns becomes less important because of virtual networks, population mobility, and the rising cost of urban real estate, the cohesive bonds uniting neighborhoods will shift. Our understanding of “neighborhood” as “community” united around relationships grounded in physical location will need to be expanded. Technology and travel have transformed neighborhoods into networks with intermittent physical spaces to meet, virtual means of staying in touch, and a global reach.

Thriving neighborhoods will emerge across physical, virtual, and global dimensions when individuals come together around a shared purpose, need, or interest. This shift in how neighborhoods constitute themselves presents a major challenge for the existing infrastructure of today’s Jewish neighborhoods. Neighborhoods structured around buildings or a campus, rely on the long-term commitments of members and their extended families with roots in a particular zip code. Their structures make it difficult to respond to rapidly changing demographic trends, technological innovations, and social patterns.

Neighborhoods that can respond more directly and specifically to the question of why they need to exist have the potential to thrive even in a moment defined by global citizenship and technological innovation. Neighborhoods that organize more dynamically around a specific set of needs, pressing issues, or personal life journeys will fare better as Jewish neighborhoods. These sorts of local neighborhoods are already taking root in the Jewish community – exemplified by the Moishe House phenomenon or the independent minyan trend, which work because they take advantage of existing social networks, fully empower grassroots leaders to shape organizational agenda, and can expand or contract depending on changing local interests. I imagine the neighborhoods of the future integrating many kinds of communities – from spontaneous pop-ups (such as a play group of young adults with children or an intensive year of adult study that forms to address a pressing religious, political, or cultural question) to long-standing organizations. Neighborhoods will benefit from multiple entry points and from finding a healthy balance between enduring physical sites and short-lived associations.

Some may dismiss the idea of pop-up communities as emblematic of the ephemeral and superficial nature of Jewish neighborhoods. But a decentralized and grassroots model challenges the centralized, top-down structure of much of the current American Jewish landscape. Many of the traditional building blocks of Jewish neighborhoods – synagogues, federations, and political advocacy organizations – operate as local representatives of national organizations. They rely on a central body to provide ideological guidelines and administrative resources. Though individuality exists, the centralized structure builds neighborhoods around a set of assumptions, categories, and ideologies that are largely set beyond the local chapter.

One path toward strengthening and empowering local neighborhoods is to disaggregate national institutions. This would shift our vision of the communal infrastructure toward a peer-to-peer web of loosely connected partners of equal potential importance. Such a model has several advantages, including lowering costs by leveraging shared resources, promoting innovation by stimulating new partnerships, and providing a greater degree of fluidity for local organizations to rethink their financial models, potential markets, and community offerings. The decentralized model has a clear potential drawback: without a strong hub, local organizations lack permanence and national support. But, permanence, or affiliation with umbrella institutions, may not be the best litmus test for future Jewish neighborhoods. Going forward, neighborhoods may demand greater autonomy to respond to specific needs and local conditions, and may seize this opportunity to encourage independent communities to imagine very different models for Jewish involvement than the ones created decades ago by our parents and grandparents.

The desire to call out, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” transcends a particular historical moment. But, the definition of neighbors and neighborhoods, and the institutions set up to support neighborhoods, will need to shift in three key ways: first, from outposts of centralized organizations to decentralized communities; second, from primarily physical connections to virtual, global, and local modes of interaction; and finally, from permanent institutions organized around fixed ideologies to dynamic pop-up organizations unified by specific interests.

What future neighborhoods will look like remains a mystery. But, looking forward, I can imagine clergy as community resources focusing on specific demographic or interest cohorts; educators as entrepreneurs identifying new sites of reaching Jews of all ages in the spaces they occupy beyond the walls of Jewish institutions; and Jewish professionals as community organizers dedicated to fostering engagement by empowering multiple voices to shape Jewish life.

Noam Pianko is an associate professor and the Samuel N. Stroum Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington and the director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. He is currently writing a book on the changing meaning of “Jewish peoplehood” in American Jewish history.

Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma June 2014, as part of a larger conversation about Jewish neighborhoods in flux.