Here’s another story out of Teaneck. It’s about a “nonprofit organization that provides religious and community activities and counseling” that neighbors somehow suspect is another way of saying “synagogue.”
Organizers seemed to deny that for a while, but their tactics are shifting, and now they have “applied for several variances from the zoning board, which would allow Etz Chaim to designate part of the Queen Anne Road property as a house of worship.”
A couple of points:
1/Tension is inevitable. Teaneck, with a large and growing Orthodox population, has a few dozen synagogues. They tend to be wedged in right among the residences (unlike other suburban synagogues, where they’re set back on campuses or zoned away from housing stock). That makes sense for Teaneck’s Orthodox community, whose members walk to synagogue on Shabbat and holy days.
The challenge for neighbors and zoning boards, however, is that it throws together private homes and houses of worship and their non-private functions — large crowds for worship, noise complaints from neighbors, parking issues for events held when it’s not Shabbat or a holy day. It’s a formula for conflict.
2/ Modus operandi. We’ve covered a couple of stories about synagogues that start with a minyan that appears to be held in a private home, and inexorably the home morphs into a full-fledged synagogue, usually by design, I suspect. The current law privileges religion (see this primer from a Christian legal association), so once a house of worship gets a foothold in a neighborhood, it is awfully hard to dislodge. I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing, but I don’t like the way some congregations exploit the law and surreptitiously set up shop, asking disingenuously, “You mean I can’t worship in my own home?” It feels — sneaky. (Or maybe that’s the fault of the law, which forces them into subterfuge. Discuss.)
3/ Ask a neighbor. Zoning meetings often end up being arguments about parking, but I rarely see the opinions of people who currently live in a neighborhood with an Orthodox synagogue. Let me, someone who lives five doors down from a major synagogue with multiple minyanim, discuss my experience:
On a typical weekday morning, there is a rush for on-street parking as men pull up for morning minyan, usually between 7:00 and 8:15 a.m. And by rush, I mean rush — guys zip into spaces, grab their tallitot and tefillin, and jog up the block. I’d prefer for safety’s sake that they slow down.
Since it’s early morning, my cars are usually already on the street or in the driveway, and since I’m usually not expecting any guests, it’s no great inconvenience, except the one time in nine years a shmeggegge blocked my driveway.
As for evening minyanim, it mirrors the morning rush, but not as much, and I rarely have parking or traffic issues.
On Sunday mornings there is often a simcha of some sort, usually a bris, or a more relaxed davening. Two hours, say. Again, the street spaces tend to fill up, but it’s at an hour that doesn’t inconvenience me.
On Shabbat, there is no auto traffic at all, of course, but a ton of foot traffic. Sometimes this spills into the streets, which has led to complaints in the area from drivers. (The walkers claim that the Teaneck sidewalks are in need of repair, which is sometimes true, but I detect a sense of ownership, swagger, arrogance [call it what you will] on the part of the walkers — who project a sense that “This is Shabbat, and the streets of this neighborhood are for walkers.” [Full disclosure: I am a walker, and I sometimes share this impulse -- what's nice about Teaneck is that if you are shomer Shabbat, Saturday feels like Shabbat.])
Also on Saturday and holy days, police block off the street directly in front of the synagogue with sawhorses, and a cop directs traffic on the main drag (they also do this on Sunday mornings at the big Korean church a few blocks away on a busier street. FYI: The church is situated away from private homes, alongside a Route 4 entrance ramp, and has a large parking lot). There’s usually a lot of kids playing rambunctiously in the synagogue playground, sometimes a big catering tent set up in the parking lot, crowds of kibbitzers standing on the sidewalks, and, after services let out, big crowds of families and strollers and men chatting it up on the sidewalks and the closed street. I’m far enough down the block that it doesn’t really affect me, although I don’t blame the people who live in a residential neighborhood who don’t want a weekly block party right next door.
Be warned: Near sunset before and after Shabbat, there are clumps of strollers, usually wearing dark colors. I worry about hitting them as I pull into or out of my driveway. I’ve seen some synagogues urge congregants to wear reflective material, but to little effect.
A lot of syangogues host simchas on Sunday afternoons or Saturday night. The smaller synagogues tend not to have catering halls, so that’s not an issue, but there will be other events attracting cars. Parking is not a problem in my neighbohood, however, and only occasionally do I look out the window and think, “There must be something going on at the shul.”
So that’s my experience. Living near a shul is no biggie. But I can’t speak for the people who live closer than I do, or the folks who bought their houses before a shul moved in next door. In the interest of neighborliness, those who are bent on establishing synagogues need to show a little empathy, indulge in a little outreach to the neighbors, and educate their own folks about leaving as small a footprint as possible.