Home Buying…as an Orthodox Jew

At some point in the conversion process, one of the biggest hurdles almost every convert encounters is finding a home or rental in an Orthodox Jewish community.  It’s a non-negotiable.  No respectable, accepted Rabbinical Court will convert you unless you live within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue, preferably within a thriving Orthodox community that can support converts during and after conversion.

The problem is that there are a limited number of those communities and they tend to be centered in established portions of major cities.  This makes sense when you think about it.  It takes a certain density of Orthodox Jews to support things like kosher grocery stores and restaurants and Orthodox Synagogues.  Having to live within walking distance of your Synagogue tends to lend itself to areas that are more urban, with a higher population density.    American Jews, in general, tend to be mostly descended from Eastern European immigrants who came through New York and, with some exceptions, American Jewish culture is an urban culture.  Even today, to many New York Jews, living in a major American city like Chicago is still like living out on the frontier.

Orthodox neighborhoods tend to be close knit and closer to downtown.  This is great for making a minyan or for kids to walk to friend’s houses on the Sabbath, but it can mean higher rents and mortgages as well as less to choose from.  Conversion candidates who are living in less expensive rural areas or suburbs or have a lot invested in their homes often have sticker shock when they realize how much it will cost them to relocate and are dismayed when they discover they can’t convert until they do.

We were fortunate in that we were able to find a rental in our price range when we moved and that our community in the midwest is relatively affordable compared to places like Brooklyn or LA.  Mr. Safek and I also have good careers that made it easy to relocate.  However, after a year of renting and missing having a home of our own, we decided it was time to put down more permanent roots and buy a house.

Buying our last house in Alaska had been a relatively simple affair.  There were several to choose from and pretty much everything in Anchorage is relatively new.  The city was leveled in the 60’s by a major earthquake, so it’s rare to find anything from before then.  Most homes were built during the oil boom of the 1980’s or later, so lead paint and asbestos just aren’t something we needed to consider.  At the time, we thought the process was stressful, but looking back, we breezed through the inspection and closed with few headaches or sleepless nights beyond the cost.

Not so in our new community.

To begin with…there are only so many houses within easy walking distance of our Synagogue, which we love, so, that narrows our search area to about a mile in each direction.  To reduce that further, our Synagogue is about a block from Lake Michigan…so…that’s one direction taken out of the picture.  So…less than 4 square miles.  Then, add in the fact that a lot of the houses closest to the Synagogue are actually, for real MANSIONS.  We’re talking multi-million dollar castles built by the industrial revolution’s prominent families.  Those are completely out of our price range.  When you add in city taxes, in fact, houses that normally would have been within our price range in Alaska are also outside our price range, particularly with Orthodox Day School tuition every year.

So…our solution, like several families in our Synagogue, was to consider buying a multi-family property and renting out part of it to help make our mortgage and taxes cheaper.  We know several families doing this and it really helps them afford to stay in the area with the space they need.  Fortunately, there is a university also in the neighborhood giving these families a steady supply of renters!  So, off we went to look at duplexes, our mortgage pre-approval in hand and our realtor at the ready.

The neighborhood has many duplexes and most of them are really charming.  They are essentially houses that were built in the early 20th century always as duplexes, full of original touches and each with their own personality.  The problem is that…there is a LOT more to buying an old house than a new one.  Each and every house has unique issues that have built up over 100 years, particularly when they were used as investment properties and all rented out to college students.  We’ve seen houses that didn’t have kitchens at all, ones where they were lifting the entire house up on jacks to pour a new basement, ones where you could literally see through the chimneys.  People do not sell houses in a neighborhood like this unless the house needs work.

I’m learning to adjust to the idea of doing home repairs I never thought I’d tackle and living without creature comforts I once considered standard.  We’re also learning to accept that any house we choose will likely need some major work in the near future, like a new roof or plumbing or electrical.  I’ve learned not to fear words like “asbestos” or “lead.”  I’m slowly redefining what home can be and what my priorities are.  Almost anything can be overcome…except what can’t.  The main thing is staying close to our community.

We had one disappointment when we put in an offer on one house and it fell through after the inspection when the issues were just too much for us to afford and the seller couldn’t come down on the price or help us make the repairs.  Now, we’re in the process of buying another house, but it also has issues and it’s hard to tell if we’ll be able to overcome them.  It’s the last house listed that might work for us and our landlords already have renters for after our closing.

It’s in times like this that I fall back on my faith.  Hashem has a plan for us and whether it’s this house or not, it will work out.  I remember how impossible the move from Alaska to here seemed at times.  Now we’re just looking to move a few more blocks!  Whatever obstacles are in the way, we’ll work through them with His help.  If this house falls through, then there is another house out there, somewhere for us.

I just wish Hashem was a little more clear when we look at listings of which house He prefers for us.

If you’re in the process of conversion and looking for a community to move to, it’s important to look at the housing costs involved, but it’s also important to realize that there is almost always a way to get from here to there.  It might mean living someplace that isn’t what you’re used to or scrimping and saving more than you thought you might, but if you’re highest priority is converting, then you will find the community and place that you’re looking for.  Be sure also to look at communities that you might not otherwise consider.  Many “rust belt” cities have affordable housing and amazing Orthodox communities!  Detroit is thriving and vibrant, upstate New York, Pennsylvania…all these places have Orthodox communities with schools and other amenities and often are far less expensive to move into.

Chin up…we’ll all find our temporary homes until next year in Jerusalem!


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