Northampton, Massachusetts: Is it good for the Jews?


I grew up in Pikesville, a predominately Jewish suburb of Baltimore. There were many advantages to growing up in a large Jewish community, but by the time I was a senior in high school, I knew I wanted out of suburbia (Jewish or not) for good.

My search for a place to call home led me in many different directions. As an environmental educator and part time wilderness instructor, I lived in some pretty remote areas of the country. I loved the serenity and the beauty, but I missed the culture and the conveniences of my home town. Sometimes you want to eat some ethnic food, or buy some socks without driving two hours, you know? (These were the days before online shopping took care of the latter concern.) And I missed having any formal Jewish institutions to either attend or avoid.

I also lived in New York for three years, where I loved all the things one can love about the greatest city in the world. But, I missed seeing stars at night and being able to breathe deeply outside without holding my nose. The Jewish life was, of course, unparalleled.

I was looking for a compromise. Somewhere I could go out to see live music, watch an independent film, visit a museum, and eat interesting foods that I don’t know how to cook (or pronounce.) Somewhere I could provide my future children with a high quality Jewish education. But, I also wanted somewhere I wouldn’t have to deal with traffic or smog. Somewhere we could have a garden, and maybe some chickens. Somewhere where I would find my progressive ideals reflected, even in the Jewish community.

About twelve years ago, I was fortunate to be awarded a graduate fellowship at Smith College, and moved to Northampton, a town of about 30,000 people in Western Massachusetts. And it was there that I found almost everything I was looking for in a hometown.

The Pioneer Valley, which includes Northampton and the surrounding towns, boasts a great music scene (it is or was the hometown of Dar Williams, the Nields, Martin Sexton, Fountains of Wayne and Chris Smither, to name a few), and an amazing literary scene (the New York Times dubbed it The Valley of the Literate.) There are a number of very good restaurants and a few great restaurants. There are acres and acres of farm land a short bike ride from downtown, and countless CSA’s and farm stands boasting organic produce, some of them year round. It’s politically progressive (Ralph Nader came ahead of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election) and only a little crowded (and only sometimes.) Is it as diverse and exciting as New York? No way. Is it as beautiful as Southern Oregon (where I lived when my husband and I were first married?) Not even close. But it’s an awesome compromise.

But is it good for the Jews? Here’s the little secret that I almost hate to share, with fear that the rest of Park Slope will also decide to move here, making the chances of our ever affording a large house slim to none. This is an amazing place to raise a Jewish family.

Day school? Yup. It’s a great school with small classes. (Full disclosure: I teach Kindergarten there.) And tuition is UNDER $8,000 dollars, thanks to a grant for every student from the locally based Harold Grinspoon Foundation. (The same foundation also subsidizes Jewish pre-school, Jewish residential summer camp and trips to Israel for local youth.) There are synagogues of every denomination in Northampton or neighboring Amherst, and a vibrant Chabad with a mikveh. While there’s no full service kosher butcher in Northampton, and no kosher restaurants, there are several vegan restaurants, a full line of Empire Poultry at Trader Joe’s, and, thanks to the Chabad house, intermittent availability of (reasonably priced) kosher beef from locally-raised, pasture-fed cows. Did I mention the National Yiddish Book Center and the many lectures and cultural events sponsored by the departments of Jewish studies at the Five Colleges?

It’s not the community for everyone. It’s decidedly un-fancy. (My mom has finally realized that she doesn’t need to pack a dress for shul when she comes to visit.) It can be a little too left of center for some (the author of Heather has Two Mommies is a member of our shul.) And there isn’t a strong culture of 25-hours of shabbat observance (we have never, once, been invited to a shabbat lunch.) Oh, and we seem to grow an awfully hardy variety of head lice. (Though no reports of bed bugs, PTU PTU PTU.) But there’s a lot to offer, and room for our community to grow. Especially if, you know, a few of you wanted to settle down here.

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posted January 8, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Great post! I love it… I am not going to have any impact on your Jewish population numbers, but I love it. : )

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posted January 8, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Hooray for Northampton! I agree completely- the Pioneer Valley is the best place to live! And I have been invited to a Shabbat lunch, btw. Cholent and everything.

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posted January 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm

That sounds like a very nice place to call home. And it makes me wish more people who write about their adopted homes in this manner.

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posted January 8, 2011 at 8:36 pm

We’d move there in a heartbeat if my husband could get a good job there (grade 7-12 science teacher!). I grew up on a 500 acre farm, and living where we do is stifling – and I can’t see the stars at nighttime.
We’ve been looking for a small town for years to move to – and always the Jewish question arises. I went to boarding school in Worcester, so I know that I love New England.
Any idea what the homeschooling scene is like? How far from the mountains? How far from the ocean? We may be neighbors in a few years….

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posted January 8, 2011 at 8:44 pm

We are about 2 hours from the ocean (ct or rhode island) and 3 from the cape. We are less than an hour from the Berkshires. There’s a pretty vibrant homeschooling community, and a number of places offer classes and activities for homeschooling families. My husband is a teacher, by the way, but social studies. Where are you now?

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posted January 8, 2011 at 8:56 pm

solon, which is a small suburb of Cleveland.

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posted January 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I have been fortunate enough to never battle the lice beast (ptu ptu ptu :) ) This article may help with the lice: they have a more recent article too (within the last year or so), but I cannot find it right now.
Also, here’s another blurb:
Head Lice
The Archives of Dermatological Research published a study in 2007 that demonstrated the effectiveness of essential oils on head lice and compared them to commercially available products marketed to treat lice. A lotion combination of lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus provided the best results and were comparable to the best commercial product available on the market.
I hope these help!

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posted January 9, 2011 at 6:02 am

Your community sounds marvelous. You are very lucky to have found such a wonderful community. We are currently looking for a new home because we need a more Jewish community. We had a wonderful community when we lived in MA. and your description makes me want to move back. I am confident however that my upcoming annual return will remind why I left(too cold). I pray we will find something half as good in our search area.

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Molly@Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce

posted January 9, 2011 at 8:23 am

Can Northampton really be blamed for the lice? Oh well, maybe that will scare away the people from Park Slope.

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Rosemary M

posted January 9, 2011 at 8:29 am

I grew up in Balto.-went to The Park School for three years as a xtian-origin scholarship student-uncomfortable at times but the progressive Jewish influence has worked its way into my soul! Now I’ve married into it & am living in Noho. It’s also been a great place for us to raise kids with more than just a token connection to the Jewish faith and culture. (oh and congrats to our dear Lauren W, very clever, very clever!)

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posted January 9, 2011 at 9:06 am

I went to Bryn Mawr – also a scholarship student (Samuel Ready – not sure if that was of Christian origin or not.)

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posted January 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I’m from the Berkshires, and my best friend went to Smith and stayed, so I totally hear you. Northampton is a bit like a smaller version of where I live now (Eugene, Oregon), with Northeast weather. And, unfortunately, summer tourists.

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Migdalor Guy

posted January 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm

My own personal take on Jewish life here in the “happy valley” is not as positive as yours for a whole host of reasons, but I am glad you and your family have found it such a great compromise, and there are certainly Jews out there looking for someplace better or different to live that ought to consider moving here. I can heartily recommend the day school. The synagogues, however, not so much.

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posted January 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Oh, don’t temp me! Northampton is a strong contender for my top pick of US places to live. We would totally invite you over for cholent. Although frankly, my cholent needs some work. (Or maybe just some kishke, which I haven’t had the courage to make yet.)

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Matis Zvi

posted January 30, 2011 at 12:02 am

Wow. Great for the Jews, huh?
That’s funny, I lived in Northampton for seven years (and Amherst for two) and I found it to be a snobby, navel-gazing, elitist and smug little town. The synagogues snubbed their noses at me and my intermarried wife. Granted we were low income and they had no reason to woo us. But I hated how the pastime in Northampton was talking about how freaking great Northampton was, along with how “incredibly progressive” all the people who lived there are. Ugh, spare me. When a town becomes too self-congratulatory, it ceases to see any reason to improve itself.
We’ve since moved out west and are much happier. Surprisingly our synagogue is much more affirming and open minded than Beit Ahava was in the oh-so-darling Western Mass.

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posted January 30, 2011 at 8:07 am

sorry to hear you have such strong bitterness attached to 9 years of your life, but i’m glad you found somewhere that works for your family.

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Matis Zvi

posted January 30, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Well, the bitterness didn’t creep up on us until after finishing college.
But back to the original point- is Northampton Good for the Jews? I hope so- Hamp’s next door neighbor, Amherst, allowed for a college student march in the middle of the street back in 2010. The theme: “God Bless the Intifada.” Freaked me out to say the least.

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