Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Rome, & Rockville Centre

At the 4 April 2022 meeting of the Rockville Centre Board of Trustees, a resident named Michelle Zangari exhorted the Board to amend the Village’s zoning laws to exclude synagogues from residentially-zoned areas, recounting her experience from growing up in the Five Towns when an influx of religious Jews changed the character of the area over a relatively short period of time. Rockville Centre Mayor Francis X. Murray’s response to Ms. Zangari was that he was aware of the issue, that the Board was “very concerned,” and that the Village Attorney would advise the Board of its options to deal with the issue.

Response from the Jewish community of Long Island and elsewhere was quick. The Village of Rockville Centre’s Facebook page, which had earlier posted the video of its 4 April 2022 Board meeting, apparently removed that posting after the appearance of posted comments ranging from critically incredulous to cynically sarcastic (my own falling into the latter category); if I were the Village Attorney I certainly would have advised the Board to so delete the posted video and the public commentary. Responding to negative reactions from the Jewish community and elsewhere, New York politicians soon ran for cover and denounced Ms. Zangari’s imprecation.

In a sense, I do empathize with Ms. Zangari from my own experience as a three-time resident of Philadelphia’s 50th Ward, a neighborhood known as Mount Airy. In less than a decade during the mid-1960’s through the mid-1970’s, Mt. Airy quickly changed over from a heavily Jewish neighborhood to mostly African-American.  Following my final Mt. Airy sojourn in the late 1970’s there remained only one Jewish family on my block, a widow and her disabled son, otherwise the block was entirely populated by African-American families. Mount Airy’s transformation was facilitated in no small part by unscrupulous real estate brokers who used questionable marketing techniques, causing significant Jewish flight to the suburbs.

Much of the criticism of the Board’s response to Ms. Zangari’s proposal entailed questioning whether there was a double standard at play. Though Ms. Zangari initially used the term “houses of worship”, she made no attempt to conceal the fact that her concerns specifically targeted the Jewish community. What would the Board’s response have been if a resident had used mosques and Muslims as a pretext for amending the zoning code?

While it is certainly true that there have been, in the Jewish community, exploitations of legal loopholes in, if not abuses of, the taxation scheme for houses of worship, these should be treated as legal issues and not as Jewish issues.  Certainly the Jewish community has no monopoly on using political influence to leverage religious exercise tax advantage for non-religious purposes; the Catholic Church does it in Jerusalem on an even grander scale.

And speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, in Rockville Centre there is much Church-related tax-exempt real estate, including Molloy College (I am not ashamed to disclose that some years back I taught at that respectable institution for a semester). More to the point, Rockville Centre is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, whose Rectory at the St. Agnes Cathedral is used for residential purposes by church priests and officials.

Ms. Zangari asked the Board “to amend the village code so that a synagogue cannot be on every residential street.” The reason there are so many synagogues is because unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish religious establishment no longer has a central hierarchy. We have not had such centralized governance since the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered the Jews throughout the world (with a continuous residual Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, of course). Since that time, individual Jewish communities have developed their own customs and traditions, and during the great waves of immigration to the New World, have brought their respective practices to their new homes in the United States and elsewhere.

The Catholic Church governance is modeled after the governance of the Roman Empire – the very word “diocese” is the term used by the Roman Empire to refer to its governed political subdivisions. If Roman Catholic descendants of the Romans object to the existence of so many synagogues and shtiebels, their own ancestors are to blame.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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