Where Less Can Be More

–by Rabbi Avi Shafran

“Can she have a cookie with a Pentagon-K on the box?” the voice on the phone asked and, after receiving my polite but negative response (a Pentagon-K?-now the Defense Department’s in the kashrus business? Who knew?), responded, “Fine, I’ll leave those in the cupboard.”

More after the jump.

It was the sort of conversation (emphasis on “sort”) that my wife and I had more than occasionally during the 1980s and early 1990s, when we lived in a city with only a small Jewishly observant community, and our children’s friends included not only other frum (observant) kids but children from less-observant families. The parents of those children knew that our kosher standards-whether regarding food, activities or entertainment-were different from theirs. And when our kids visited their homes, our less-observant neighbors-no less than we did for their visiting children with food sensitivities or allergies-took pains to make sure all special needs were fully accommodated.

Some might consider that situation clumsy, uncomfortable, even dangerous. But to us it was invaluable. We are grateful to G-d that we were able to live “out of town” for so long and only moved to New York (compelled by circumstances) after most of our children’s formative years.

Admitting that fact tends to raise eyebrows-at least those of people who never actually lived in a small frum community. “Come on,” the eyebrows’ owners respond, “you don’t mean to say that an environment with fewer frum Jews and Jewish educational opportunities, with more challenges to observance and more “foreign” influences, is superior, do you?”

Well, put that way, I’m hesitant to respond. But still and all, there are advantages to precisely such an environment.

Yes, in a large observant community, there are like-minded people pretty much everywhere you look, synagogues of all manner of custom; Maariv, or evening-prayer services at any hour of the night, meat restaurants and pizza places and kosher bakeries galore. Men’s and women’s yeshivos and seminaries of varied stripes, ritual holiday objects available seasonally on street corners, choices of study partners and observant neighbors, study halls and Torah classes. There are wedding halls and, may their services not be needed, Jewish burial societies.

And yet, the other side of the scales holds treasures of its own, some of them even born of the lack of religious amenities.

Variety may be the spice of life, and religious customs are certainly important. But when the numbers of “shul Jews” in a community are only sufficient to populate one or two places of prayer, Jews of different stripes have no choice but to worship among others whom, were they all living in a big city, they might never have met, much less bonded with as friends. Dearths of eateries are offset by increases in invitations for celebrations and Sabbath meals.

Torah classes and study partners? Well, out-of-town does mean fewer opportunities. But more impetus, too, to take advantage of what is available (and less ability to lay low and think no one will notice).  Being an integral part of a necessarily cohesive, small community, moreover, rather than a nameless member of a large one demands of a Jew that he or she not only write a check to the burial society or Eruv Committee but become an actual, active participant in such endeavors.

It is true that large observant communities can provide a measure of healthy insularity from the surrounding culture. But hard as the residents of religious neighborhoods may try to keep “the city” at bay, it will always have ways of infiltrating our enclaves. And metropolises tend to cook up the worst stews of challenges to Torah mores and proper behavior.

Smaller cities are hardly oases of healthy mores and manners. But the challenges they present are of a different order than those of New York or Los Angeles. Traditional values and civility are less rare, and more readily inform public discourse and behavior.

Out of town living isn’t for everyone. But Jews in the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods of frumdom could do worse than consider-if their work and family circumstances allow, and their spouses agree-the thought that leaving the plethora or shuls and bakeries behind and becoming important members of less endowed environments might just turn out to be the best decision they ever made.



  1. leebarzel says

    The Rabbi of our large Orthodox shul spent nine years in Birmingham, Alabama and it might be the best decision of his career.  He was the only Orthodox rabbi in four adjoining states and he was often asked to explain Judaism and the Jews to their evangelical Christian neighbors.

    My college graduate daughter attended our local public high school, after years of being in intimate (as in, small) Jewish schools.  Upon her graduation from HS, she told us that it was the best decision we could have made for her, as it allowed her to fully develop her identity as a Jew.  She learned to negotiate and interact with her non-Jewish peers.  She often encountered self-doubt from her non-Orthodox classmates (who would say things like, “I’m not a good Jew”), but on the whole, everyone was very respectful of her faith and observance.  The hardest task was defending Israeli politics– both past, present, and future– in ninth grade when she transferred in during their unit on the Middle East.

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