For affordability and Jewish lifestyle, pack up for Detroit

Being a committed* Jew is expensive. There’s real estate in upper-middle to upper-class neighborhoods, which accounts for 50 percent of the costs, and there’s tuition, another 50 percent. While it’s tough to beat the energy of New York City or the style of Los Angeles, I got to thinking about where the most affordable places to be a committed Jew might actually be. Here are my criteria to qualify:

• A mikvah

• An eruv (religious boundary)

• A Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogue

• K-12 Jewish day school options

• At least one kosher restaurant or kosher-friendly supermarket

Using these criteria, I narrowed the list to 50 cities. I then found the average real estate data by neighborhood using trulia.com and looked up the tuition by day schools in the area, formulated them together, and … voila!

Anybody can make this list. It’s a back-of-the-napkin calculation with open source data. If we care about making a better list — and putting affordability in its precise context that would allow us to better understand the actual sustainability of Jewish education — the Jewish communal infrastructure needs to be more transparent with its data. Important variables like the real cost of tuition (as opposed to the sticker price) are, as of now, impossible to find. If anything,  this is meant to provoke a conversation so  we can build a better list together.


Most affordable

10. Pittsburgh. This Pennsylvania diamond in the rough, Steelers and all, is kicking off the list. And yes, the Jewish community is really in a neighborhood named Squirrel Hill.

9. Baltimore. You knew it was going to be on the list. Yes, it’s affordable. Yes, I would never move there. Sorry about the Baltimore-hate but it’s the only place I’ve been mugged — twice — in the inner harbor, which is the “nice” area.

8. St. Louis. Gorgeous parks, museums, and campuses (Wash U.!) — not too bad.

7. Memphis, Tenn. With one of the most forward-thinking day schools in the country (Margolin) and ridiculously low housing prices (average is $203,000), it’s a hard one to miss.

6. Kansas City, Kan. My prayers are with them, but not even a crazy person keeps me from considering this vibrant and warm community.

5. Columbus, Ohio. It has an amazing, burgeoning Jewish community and is home to the Wexner Foundation that sponsors this blog.

4. Milwaukee. Not a pretty city (though I may have missed the nice parts). But boy is it in a pretty part of the country. There’s also plenty of kosher cheese.

3. Buffalo, N.Y. It’s chilly but ignore the lake effect, this city has tons of Jewish amenities and is just a short drive from the Marjorie Morningstar camp — seriously.

2. Cleveland. The home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a rockin’ Jewish community, replete with options and poised to contend for top position.

1. Detroit. Not only was it the most affordable on the list, the average home price was 40 percent lower than the second place. Is the Motor City ripe for a Jewish revival or is it on its way out? Of course, affordability is also a function of potential income.


Least affordable

10. Washington, D.C. You pay the price for rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy. In more ways than one.

9. Englewood, N.J. Breathtaking views are almost worth every penny.

8. Boston. On the bright side, living there doesn’t put you in as much debt as going to school there.

7. Beverlywood, L.A. area. This one is where we fall off the cliff. Housing prices now average over $1 million. Day schools cost more than $25,000 per year. And folks in the great recession generation will never be able to raise a family in a house there (historically speaking, at least). But it’s hard to beat sunny Los Angeles.

6. Great Neck, N.Y. I just have to say, I love how a predominantly Sephardic community made this list. Go first- and second-generation immigrants!

5. Lake View, Chicago area. Growing up, I thought Chicago was all steel and smoke. Lincoln Park, though, home to amazing synagogues, hilariously named kosher establishments and the Cubs is freaking gorgeous.

4. Teaneck, N.J. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky … ”

3. San Francisco. With a ballpark overlooking the bay, theaters, world-class restaurants, and Jewish day and high schools, what’s not to like? Never mind that real estate is out of sight.

2. Manhattan. The energy. The gleam. The glamour. The smell. I love New York City. I really do. But every time I think about living there I remember the pet mice I had in college.

1. Palo Alto. The average 2-3 bedroom home sells for $1.8 million and new listings soar well above $3 million, unless you want to try to outbid an overseas investor with a suitcase of cash. And don’t get me started on rent, which, if New York is too damn high, then Palo Alto is too damn higher. Man, I need to move.

*Note: I realize that being a “committed” Jew is a remarkably varied thing. No judgment, with my criteria, is intended. That said, I would love to see alternative formulas for other approaches if you have them. Please send to [email protected]

This piece first appeared as a blog entry, which drew more than 50,000 visits and elicited 140 comments in its first week online. J. edited this version. See the original plus extensive data at www.tinyurl.com/mcw-blog.

Matthew Williams is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in history and education in connection with the Stanford University Education and Jewish Studies Program. He’s a Jim Joseph fellow and Wexner/Davidson scholar.