Sukkos is here, baruch Hashem, the great holiday of celebrating our personal accomplishments over the prior two weeks — or six weeks, actually — as we refreshed and recalibrated our connection to Almighty G-d.
With yom tov here, it is incumbent upon people like us to provide our readers with material that educates and informs and provides some less-intense-than-usual food for thought — instead of just washing for bread and eating a multi-course meal, for a change.
So here are a few things that I have been pondering these last few weeks that I would like to share and, as long as we are at it, to reminisce about as well.
The first topic for conversation is the matter of opening new shuls in residential areas like the Five Towns here on Long Island. Before we get to that, however, let’s talk about what’s involved in buying a house or a property and opening or building a shul in an area like Queens or Brooklyn.
Turning a residential edifice into a structure for public use requires navigating one’s way through a bureaucratic maze. It may be complicated or even difficult, but it is certainly possible.
If you ask the casual observer about shuls in parts of Flatbush or Boro Park, many will cavalierly comment that there are three or more shuls on just about every block, and that might be accurate.
Having resided in the Five Towns for more than 25 years, I have witnessed and even partaken on several levels of what can be characterized as a struggle to open new shuls, specifically in the Village of Lawrence, over these last two and a half decades. Last week at a village trustee meeting that I had anticipated was going to deal with the proposal to open a massive new public library at the cost of $25 million taxpayer, I was surprised that the subject of the library was not raised but that the plan to purchase a private home and convert it into a shul was raised by several residents who live in close proximity to the said structure.
Sitting here today, I can vividly recall the hubbub and debate that surrounded the establishment of six shuls in the Village over these last 20 or so years. Each one had its proponents and opponents; some still do. At times, the village and even the Town of Hempstead government was opposed and tried to fight the matter as well. But the six that I have in mind (and will not name) all have one thing in common — legal challenges notwithstanding; they are all open and indeed flourishing today.
In all likelihood, the same exact thing will happen with this new proposed shul. People will object and complain, but at the end of the process, the practice of religion is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. So when those who were sitting behind me at the village meeting stood up and asked the local government to enact a policy that places a moratorium on new shuls, I was plainly astounded.
One person said she lived in Lawrence for more than 40 years. Where was she during the events that transpired when those other six houses of worship were being debated and in the process of being established? One individual at the meeting last week said that he had taken a tape measure and measured the distance between an already existing shul near the new location, and the distance was just 100 feet between the two.
“Do we need a shul every 100 feet?” he asked the trustees.
The answer might be that no, we do not need shuls spaced 100 feet apart, but it is not about what we personally need or do not need. It is solely about the protection of religion by law. That is where it both begins and ends.
And that was quite the surprising aspect of the meeting. I mean, don’t these folks understand that if their objective is to prevent a shul or any religious institution from opening near them — or anywhere for that matter — they are not going to win? Now if they are concerned about public safety, road congestion, street parking, or hindering the passage of emergency vehicles, then those legitimate concerns should have been voiced accordingly.
But then there is another unique dimension to this matter. And that is the discomfort present when Orthodox Jews stand at a meeting to voice their opposition to the opening of a shul that they would likely daven in were it not located so close to them but rather someplace else — or, for that matter, anyplace else.
To appreciate this criticism, one has to view the matter in context and from a broader perspective. The shuls, some of which are now open more than 20 years in residential areas, are largely non-descript. There is no obtrusive signage that would set these properties apart from the others. For the most part, the edifices blend in with the rest of the homes in the area in which they are located.
That said, let’s add that all these non-major shuls, so to speak, have a common issue neighbors —that is traffic and parking, which clearly is a legitimate concern. I recall hearings prior to the approval of construction or renovations at these other shuls where the objections of concerned parties mostly involved people speeding to make a minyan or obstructing the flow of traffic and creating a hazardous situation by double-parking.
If you attend minyan at of these shuls on a non-Shabbos day, especially on Sunday afternoon, there may indeed be more cars than if there was no shul located there.
I recall in particular the hearings that took place prior to the construction of Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv at the end of New McNeil Avenue on the border of the Village of Lawrence. The worry expressed about speeding cars and potential danger posed to children on bicycles or just playing near their homes was riveting and conjured up some of the worst fears. There was talk of turning New McNeil Avenue into a one-way street and possibly mandating that students at the Yeshiva use only Route 878 to drive to the Yeshiva, and so on.
Today the Yeshiva is one of the crown jewels of the Five Towns community. Thank G-d, none of the potential awful nightmares have come to fruition, and the people who live near the Yeshiva today consider themselves to be particularly fortunate. The same can be said of many of the other shuls that were not here 10 or 20 years ago and are today a great credit and even an attraction to the Five Towns.
Then there is the sensitive matter of regular shul-going people taking a stand in opposition to the next person’s desire to daven in a new and beautiful shul, and especially making that position known at a public forum. It is the nature of that outward public expression that is troubling. After all, there have been dramatic demographic changes in the Five Towns over the last 10–20 years, but there are still detractors out there who derive immense satisfaction when they observe Orthodox Jews standing up and voicing their opposition to the expansion of Orthodox Jewish life here.
That does not mean that citizens of the village or neighbors of these projects should curb their disagreement to the opening of a shul near them, or any commercial project for that matter. Even though at the meeting I attended someone asked the trustees about the imposing a moratorium on additional shuls in the village, I do not believe that was their intent. If anything, the individual in this case was plainly concerned about traffic and parking issues as it relates to any entity that draws crowds, whether a shul, a restaurant, or any similar type of establishment.
Those involved in these matters — whether proponents or opponents of new or old shuls — are, for the most part, sensitive to the needs and feelings of their neighbors. No one wants to encroach on anyone else’s property or lifestyle. The parties involved should have a sit-down and discuss the matter and try to work things out to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. The good feeling generated by such a meeting will in and of itself solve a major part of any potential problem related to the issue.
So now let’s deal with one more matter on this subject. People to whom this is relevant have asked me how I would feel if a house next door to me was sold and was intended to be used as a shul. That’s a good question. I queried other family members who said that they would not be pleased if that would happen, and I feel the same way, as the motivation is to protect the pristine, quiet lifestyle to which we have grown accustomed here. Regardless of the issues that might be present with such a hypothetical possibility, going public to prevent such an occurrence is not the way to go. It would need to be dealt with quietly and privately.
Now you might be thinking that a few weeks ago I took the position against the construction of a new $25 million library on the corner of Central and Lawrence Avenues in Lawrence. The answer to that is obvious: while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion and speech, I do not believe that building a new library is covered by that amendment. And, of course, a library is not a shul, a house of prayer, or a religious institution.
Still, a shul popping up next door to you after you’ve lived there for a few decades can generate some concern. The reality is that there is nothing to be disturbed about. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who have had shuls or a yeshiva built in short walking distance from their home now like it very much and appreciate the fact that it is there. Most shuls are quiet places and are only used for perhaps two hours a day, except on Shabbos and yom tov.
We do not need a moratorium on shuls in the Five Towns. If you feel we do, the news is that it is not happening anyway, so you may as well adjust and learn to enjoy it.