NY Jewish Culture Examiner: Affordable Jewish communities

Posted on February 8, 2009


I am now the NY Jewish Culture Examiner on http://www.examiner.com This is my first article. Feel free to suggest topics for future articles. (Update: examiner.com closed on 7/10/16).



This past week Crane’s New York Business reported a middle class exodus from New York City as on the one hand the economy falters and on the other the cost of living in the city remains very high. This called to mind articles in a variety of Jewish periodicals that appeared earlier in the decade about the high cost of living Jewishly.

The high cost of living here and the high cost of living Jewishly anywhere combine to pose the question where can Jewish New Yorkers of modest means relocate? Can one find a strong Jewish community where housing and Jewish tuition are more affordable? For those not ready and/or willing to make aliyah (housing is generally less expensive in Israel and the public schools provide the equivalent of a Jewish day school education tuition free) some of America’s small to mid-sized cities are beckoning. For examples I need look no further than my siblings. My two brothers and their families live in Binghamton, New York and Jacksonville, Florida.

Binghamton, New York

Binghamton has a small but active Jewish community with its own weekly newspaper and a day school that accepts children from all streams of Judaism and whose tuition is a fraction of that charged by comparable schools in Westchester, Manhattan, and brownstone Brooklyn (their modest tuition may be reduced according to need). But maybe one gets what one pays for: our niece attended that day school for kindergarden, first and second grades, but her parents found instruction there in secular subjects inadequate and transfered her to public school at the start of third grade. Public school spending per child is slightly higher than the national average. Binghamton has Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox congregations (one each), and Chabad has a strong presence on the campus of Binghamton University. There is also a Jewish Community Center.

Binghamton is situated at the confluence of the north branch of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers surrounded by scenic hilly/mountanous countryside. Most Jews live in west Binghamton, the neighborhood bounded on the east by the Chenango River, on the west by the city’s border with Johnson City, on the north by Main Street and the south by the north branch of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna floods periodically, so one might want to chose a home on higher ground closer to Main Street rather than downhill closer to the river. Temperatures are usually about ten degrees cooler than New York City, and like the rest of New York state’s southern tier experiences abundant precipitation throughout the year including over 80 inches of snow. According to my brother, thanks to global warming Binghamton enjoys an additional 60 days of sunshine each year compared to when he was an undergraduate there in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Even if that is true people afflicted with seasonal mood disorder should probably not move there.

Median home prices are between a quarter and a third of those in New York City, and since the majority of  Binghamton homes are below the median price housing is indeed quite affordable. Binghamton’s population is 45,000 and falling (of whom 540 are Jewish), and its metropolitan area is around a quarter of a million. Commuting times and distances are considerably shorter than in the greater New York metropolitan area; the city is compact and pedestrian friendly, and there is frequent bus service . Binghamton University is the largest employer and plays a dominant role in the city’s rich cultural life. IBM and Endicot-Johnson Shoes have outsourced many former Binghamton jobs, and since the end of the cold war several defense companies have reduced their number of employees. There are a handful of small technology companies, and the city boasts a burgeoning art scene. A friend from high school who belongs to the same congregation as my brother is a puppeteer whose company entertains Binghamton area children. Jobs are hard to find; most Jewish residents work for the university, the county, in technology, the arts, and the liberal professions.

The gentile population is predominantly Roman Catholic and blue collar. Binghamton voted for Kerry and Obama in the two most recent presidential elections. The city has lovely parks, six carousels, a zoo, museums, an art walk, a symphony orchestra, and minor league baseball and hockey teams. The surrounding countryside offers hiking, mountain biking, and cross country ski trails. The crime rate (especially murder) is low; the most reported crime is burglary.

Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville also has a small but strong Jewish community whose synagogues include a Modern Orthodox, a Chabad,  a Reform, and two Conservative congregations. All of these are located in Mandarin,  Jacksonville’s most Jewish neighborhood. The largest of these is Jacksonville Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation of about 800 families which recently became egalitarian and has two rabbis, a cantor, a ritual director, and a day school. Day school tuition is about a third of what comparable Manhattan day schools charge, and tuition assistance is available according to economic need. Beth Shalom is also Conservative, was always egalitarian, has about 250 families, and is more informal than JJC. Neighboring Ponte Pedra Beach, Florida also has a Reform congregation. In addition to its synagogues Jacksonville also has The Jewish Community Alliance (a Jewish Community Center) and an active federation. Public school spending per child is slightly below the national average.

Jacksonville is located in northern Florida just south of the Georgia border on the Atlantic Ocean and the St. John River.  Most locals, including native Jews, speak with a southern accent. Jacksonville’s gentile population is predominantly Evangelical Protestant and tends to vote Republican, but Duval County which includes most of Jacksonville, voted for Obama in the most recent election. There is an NPR news and talk station, and about half of the other radio stations play country music; for greater listening diversity satellite radio is recommended. Jacksonville’s population exceeds three quarters of a million people, of whom six thousand are Jewish, and has a diverse economy that was growing prior to the current economic crisis. Winter daytime temperatures are usually in the 50s and 60s. The late spring, summer, and early autumn are hot, humid, and mostly spent indoors.

Jacksonville is geographically the nation’s largest city. If you dislike driving or are unable to drive stay away; commuting times and distances can be lengthy, and bus service is slow and infrequent. On the other hand, readers who are used to the suburban sprawl of parts of Long Island and New Jersey might feel quite at home here; the main local streets are a continuous strip mall with all the national franchises, and the topography is flat and monotonous. Housing costs are lower than any of our five boroughs, about two thirds of that of Staten Island, New York City’s most affordable borough.

Jacksonville’s rather sterile downtown has office towers separated by parking lots, as well as a monorail (similar to the People Movers in Detroit and Miami) and the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art whose two floor collection boasts the southeast’s largest modern art collection. The latter has a small but representative collection of 20th and 21st century art including work by Rosenquist, Stella, Frankenthaler, Mapplethorpe, and a few Picasso lithographs. There is also a kid friendly science museum and another art museum that features 19th Century Americana. Just southwest of downtown is the five points section (named for an intersection–no relation to the 19th century Manhattan slum), the funky artsy area of Jacksonville–especially one block of Park Street between Post and the five point intersection.

Jacksonville’s beaches attract both locals and vacationers. Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve includes verdant hiking trails, and preservations of Fort Caroline and the Kingsley Plantation (including its slave quarters). Just north of the Preserve is Amelia Island, a vacation destination. Nearby historic St. Augustine is half an hour south of Mandarin. Jacksonville’s crime rate is higher than the national average, and its violent crime rate is double the national average.

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