It seemed like a very straightforward goal: sell our apartment in New York City and buy a house in the suburbs.
With two growing boys and a large dog in a 1,400 square foot apartment, we knew we had outgrown our space and it was time to move. After much agonizing, we decided we would make a major life change and migrate to suburbia, leaving behind the outrageous New York City expenses of private schools and parking garage fees. However, we then had to decide where to search for our new home. Most families consider factors such as the school system, proximity to playgrounds, shops, etc. But we had an extra consideration to factor in: the religious mix of the community.
Having been raised in a community that was 90 percent Jewish, I knew I didn't want that kind of homogenous town for my family. My husband, who is Catholic, was raised in a Midwestern city that I suspect didn't have a synagogue within a twenty-mile radius. So, where did that leave us?
Well, the encouraging part of this saga is that we both agreed we wanted a diverse community. But that's easier said than done when you're talking about suburbia. The suburbs tend to be synonymous with "let's all live in a town where everyone is the same religion, falls within the same socioeconomic stratum, drives the same type of car, and shops in the same kind of stores...." Clearly, we knew that finding a diverse community would be challenging, but, we hoped, also attainable.
We had been told that Westchester County in New York had a number of "mixed" areas. It just so happened that the real estate broker we were using was Jewish and her husband was Catholic, so we had an instant bond with her. Furthermore, we were open and upfront with her regarding our desire for diversity. We narrowed our search down to three communities, all with the reasonable commute to Manhattan that my husband wanted. The three towns were purportedly full of "blended" families, but that information was word-of-mouth and not precise at all.
After many weekends of house hunting, we actually found the perfect house; my husband thought we were all set until I went into panic mode. Suddenly, I realized I knew nothing about this community (other than the hearsay) and whether there were any Jewish people in it. I didn't want 90 percent saturation like my childhood hometown, but I certainly didn't want to be "the token Jew" either. The broker assured me there were plenty of Jews, but let's face it, she wanted her commission. She also told me it was professionally improper for her to get too specific about the religious demographics. She gave me the phone number of the one temple in the community. Good sign, but I still didn't know if the congregants lived in that town.
Before I knew it, I was grilling some woman at Wheatford (fictional name) Community Synagogue about where the Jewish people were. "They come from this community as well as several neighboring communities," she explained.
"You definitely aren't in the majority here," she added. Could you be a little more vague? I felt like saying. Instead I pressed on, "Well, could you give me a percentage of the estimated Jewish people in the area?" At this point, I was glad I hadn't given my name. I felt absurd, embarrassed and almost bigoted. I never would have pictured myself asking these types of questions. Nevertheless, I didn't get the candid answers I was looking for.
I have to admit it was fairly hypocritical of me to "feel better" that there was a temple in the community because I certainly didn't have any intention of joining one right away. I simply needed to know that there was one; proof (and maybe, a feeling of security) that Jewish families lived in the vicinity. My husband was realistic and honest about his own religious and spiritual needs: We wouldn't be regularly attending Mass at the local church either, but he wanted evidence of a church presence for his peace of mind.
As for our dilemma about Wheatford, my husband and I asked about the neighborhood through our friends and business contacts. We heard everything from "very diverse" to "very Christian" to the oh-so-reassuring, "my kids had plenty of Jewish friends growing up there." What bothered me most was that none of the people we asked was Jewish; we didn't know any Jewish person who currently or formerly lived there.
As I was complaining to my mother on the phone about my uneasiness--"Can't anyone find me a Jew there? I'd feel so much better about this!"--we sort of chuckled at my exasperation. But my mother confessed that she was relieved by my dilemma: she hadn't known that having other Jews in my community was important to me.
As it turned out, we didn't take the house due to issues with the property and its proximity to a busy road. However, I did finally find a Jewish woman who was raised in that community. She even gave me the percentage I was looking for. Her estimate: 30 percent. Not bad, I thought.
I could be comfortable with that. I relayed this information to my husband, who at this point didn't want to hear it. Crushed that we still didn't have a house to live in, he was a little suspicious that perhaps my reason for not wanting the house was because of the religious composition of the town. Although we both agreed that not buying that house was ultimately the right decision, the whole experience underscored that issues for an interfaith couple will leap out at you when you least expect it.
So, our house hunt continues. This weekend, we are driving up to Connecticut to investigate a suburb up there. The area has had a reputation of being home to many white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Apparently, that has changed, however. I promised to have an open mind, but you can be sure I will be keeping count of all the churches and synagogues we see. After all, roots count.
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Emily Cappo is a freelance writer and mother of two boys living in New York City. Previously a marketing manager in financial services, Emily left the business world to follow her true passions of writing and raising her children. Her articles have appeared in Parents Magazine, family- and animal-oriented regional magazines, and webzines.