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Walk to worship: For many Jewish homebuyers, a nearby synagogue is a must

This house on Oak Avenue in Cedarhurst is

This house on Oak Avenue in Cedarhurst is listed for $729,000 in September 2014. It is about a mile, or less, from synagogues. Credit: Five Towns Miller Realty

The two-bedroom apartment in Kew Gardens Hills had long since started to feel cramped. David Frankel, his wife, Cindy, and their three daughters loved the neighborhood, the people and the convenient synagogues and kosher shopping. But with five to a bathroom, there were just too many Frankels on that top floor of the two-family house, which had been their home for 18 years.

"We had everything we needed, recreationally, Jewish-ly," says David, 46, of their Queens community, which they recently left for West Hempstead. "We outgrew our apartment."

Like any prospective buyers, they had budgets and commutes to consider, but first and foremost, they would need to find a house within walking distance of a synagogue. For Orthodox Jews like the Frankels, the laws of the Sabbath -- also called Shabbat -- prohibit driving or riding in a car or any other vehicle from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

Nassau County is home to two of the most engaged Jewish communities in the New York area -- Great Neck and the Five Towns -- according to the most recent Jewish Community Study of New York. Its Jewish population grew 4 percent between 2002 and 2011 (Suffolk's shrank by the same amount). For Jews who strictly observe the Sabbath, living within reasonable walking distance of their place of worship is a must.

"People are basically looking for a community," says David Zivotofsky, of Ark Realtors in West Hempstead, the Frankels' broker. That includes schools, synagogues, eateries. "Life revolves around those things and the people themselves," he says. Prospective homeowners want to be in a place where they have or will find friends for themselves and their children, as well as be near a synagogue that aligns with their beliefs and lifestyle.

Picking a neighborhood is a good starting point, says Mordechai Dornbush of Century 21 American Homes in Long Beach. "There are some neighborhoods that are more modern Orthodox," he says, referring to observant Jews who have integrated into modern society rather than living apart. And, he says, "some ... are a little bit more traditional," referring to the various streams and levels of religiosity that make up different Jewish communities.

A secular or Reform family would not likely feel bound to live within walking distance of a synagogue, whereas for some Conservative and all Orthodox families, it is nonnegotiable. In Nassau, 32 percent of Jews surveyed identified themselves as Conservative and 11 percent as Orthodox, according to the Jewish Community Study. And even within those two streams, there are subdivisions -- such as modern Orthodox -- that have different cultures and practices.

"If they feel one neighborhood is a little more in their realm," says Dornbush, they should start their search there. However, the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits real estate agents from steering clients toward or away from certain neighborhoods "because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin," so prospective buyers need to do some research on their own to determine which might be a good religious fit.

To help the religious navigate a move, Ron Gerber created, a one-stop real estate listing site that allows people to "view properties in different cities and neighborhoods that meet their top priority" of reasonable walking distance to an Orthodox synagogue, he writes. The website helps them "find Orthodox communities that they may not be familiar with, widening their choices and opportunities."

Some synagogues, such as Young Israel of West Hempstead, offer potential buyers the opportunity to visit for Shabbat and stay with a local family to get a feel for the community to see if they want to search nearby.

"If we find out that someone new has moved in, there's a welcoming committee that goes off to the house," says Mark Twersky, executive director of Great Neck Synagogue, which is Orthodox. The committee might bring a small gift, invite the new family to a meal and introduce them to others at shul, or synagogue. "Most neighborhoods do the same thing," says Twersky, who has lived in Great Neck for more than 30 years.

Harry and Avigayil Askenazi had seen a lot of their friends move to West Hempstead by the time they began looking for a new home. They have lived in Forest Hills since they were married in 2007, and had their first baby in 2013. While expecting their second, the Askenazis -- like the Frankels -- decided they needed more space.

"For us," Harry says, "the most important factor was being close to family" -- his in Queens and hers in the Five Towns. Harry, 30, is head of sales for the Americas at SuperDerivatives, a financial high tech software company, as well as one of the founders of Pella Productions, a Jewish a cappella ensemble, and Harmonia Orchestra, a musical entertainment group for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other parties.

The more modern Orthodox community in West Hempstead, that had attracted the Askenazis' friends appealed to the young couple as well. They found a small four-bedroom house with a large backyard and a lot of potential, and will do some work on it, expanding to make it more like a Colonial, before moving in a few months from now.

"Walking distance" is a relative term. It depends, Harry jokes, on how energetic you are. While younger families might settle a mile or more from a preferred synagogue, older couples in their 60s, 70s or 80s might cap the distance at a half-mile, says Sharona Beck of Sharona Beck Realty in West Hempstead. "If it's pouring or snowing," she says, they "will be going to the closest synagogue anyway, and the kids and women are probably not going anyway."

When choosing a spot, Beck says, clients will often want to ensure the house and synagogue is within an eruv -- "a string that goes around the perimeter of where you have to be within in order to do certain things like push baby strollers or carry things on the Sabbath." There are roughly a dozen eruvin on Long Island, including in West Hempstead, Great Neck, the Five Towns, Oceanside, Stony Brook and, most recently added -- after years of controversy -- in Westhampton Beach.

With three children ages 10, 7, and almost 2, William and Tanya Green also had schools to think about when they decided to move from Staten Island to Long Island. Like the Frankels and many other religious families, they send their children to private Jewish schools rather than enrolling them in the public system. They chose Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway for their kids, and many of the kids at their new synagogue, Irving Place Minyan in Woodmere, are classmates.

Schools and commutes were two central factors for the Greens, who searched throughout the Five Towns before finding a home in Hewlett this summer. The new location cuts their daily travel times significantly -- William, 37, to Rego Park, where he works as a lawyer for a large laundromat chain, and Tanya, 35, to teach English at Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene.

The availability of kosher grocery shopping and a selection of restaurants in the Five Towns area proved to be an added bonus. The main food hub, Dornbush says, is in Cedarhurst, which boasts kosher pizza, sushi and meat and dairy restaurants, as well as grocery stores.

The Greens made sure to stay on the dryer side of Peninsula Boulevard, after superstorm Sandy damaged homes closer to the water. And they are not the only ones to be skittish; Dornbush says one of the first questions clients ask these days is whether a home is in the flood zone and whether it requires flood insurance. The Greens moved into a three-bedroom, 1½-bath Colonial with a built-out attic and a basement they decided to finish, one block from Woodmere.

David and Cindy Frankel, associate executive director of the Sephardic Community Center in Flatbush and a school social worker, respectively, chose a 3,000-square-foot expanded cape -- with a master bedroom on the first floor, two bedrooms upstairs and two in the finished basement, and with a deck -- in the center of West Hempstead.

"The question was also, where do you get the most for your money," David says. "The reality is when you are an observant Jew and you're looking for a neighborhood that will provide you what you need, you've resigned yourself to the reality that a home will be much more expensive than in any other neighborhood."

"Typically, if it's a shorter walk, it will command more," Zivotofsky says. Dornbush agrees, explaining that there are many more buyers than sellers, making options close to synagogues scarce and expensive. He's seen bidding wars drive the cost of a house $50,000 north of the asking price. Research published in International Real Estate Review in 2011 found that a new Orthodox worship center in a Midwest city raised home prices in the immediate vicinity, "because there is a strong demand for living within easy walking distance from the campus."

To get more for their money, some families opt for newer religious communities, Dornbush says, such as Inwood and North Woodmere.

While young couples follow their friends or return to the communities where they grew up, older couples gravitate toward children and grandchildren. Beck recently found her own parents a home in West Hempstead and one for Mel and Goldie Isaacs, who left West Hempstead decades ago for Long Beach but wanted to move farther inland after Sandy and closer to two of their grown daughters.

Mel, 76, has retired after more than a half-century in education, most recently as principal and director of education at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. Last time they lived in West Hempstead, there were maybe 100 couples, Mel says. Now, there are 700 families at Young Israel of West Hempstead alone.

"It's still mushrooming. It's beautiful to see," he says. "You feel like you're in Jerusalem."


GREAT NECK: $1,188,800

Location: 17 Polo Rd.
Details: This four-bedroom, three-bath Tudor is within a half-mile of Great Neck Synagogue and Temple Beth-El of Great Neck on Old Mill Road as well as Congregation Shaare Zion and Young Israel of Great Neck on Middle Neck Road. The house is within walking distance of Temple Israel's Beth HaGan preschool and North Shore Hebrew Academy. Kosher restaurants dot Middle Neck Road. The house has a finished basement and sits on a 7,800-square-foot lot.
Listing agent: Sebastian Watelier, Keller Williams Realty Gold Coast, 516-482-0200.

CEDARHURST: $729,000

Location: 368 Oak Ave.
Details: A Colonial with six bedrooms, two bathrooms and two half-bathrooms, this home could accommodate a large or growing family. Just a few blocks from the Cedarhurst Long Island Rail Road station, it's also about a mile, or less, to Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, Temple Beth El of Cedarhurst, Agudath Israel of the Five Towns, Bais Medrash of Cedarhurst and Congregation Beth Sholom, Lawrence, among others.
Listing agents: Don Miller and Bryna Flaum, Five Towns Miller Realty, 516-374-4100.


Location: 573 Woodfield Rd.
Details: This four-bedroom, two-bathroom expanded cape has a finished basement and sits on a 110-by-115-foot lot about a half-mile from Young Israel of West Hempstead and less than a mile from Congregation Anshei Shalom. The Hempstead Gardens and Lakeview Long Island Rail Road stations are a few blocks away, as is Hempstead Lake State Park. Kosher pizza and Chinese food can be found on Hempstead Avenue roughly a mile away.
Listing agent: Sharona Beck, Sharona Beck Realty, 516-565-4392.

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