Young mothers with newborns in strollers gather outside a popular cafe just steps from the Minuteman Bikeway. The meet-up walk is organized under the auspices of the JCC of Greater Boston. Inside the cafe, a Jewish feminist scholar sips a cappuccino, engrossed in a book. Overheard at tables are conversations about synagogue life or the latest novel by a local Jewish author. Here and there, Hebrew wafts through the air.
Sure, the Yiddishkeit vibe may be unremarkable in the cafe scene in Newton, Brookline or Sharon. But less than a decade ago, this vibrant Jewish presence so palpable at the Kickstand Cafe would have been unexpected in this town of more than 45,000, just eight miles northwest of Boston. Now, it’s the new normal in Arlington, whose main thoroughfares and neighborhoods are dotted with multiple Christian houses of worship.
But no synagogue.
Some 10 years ago, when a local gift shop started selling Hanukkah candles, it was welcome news, said Karin Blum, a professional at Jewish Vocational Service who has lived in Arlington with her husband and daughter for almost 20 years. Then, there was only one other Jewish kid in her daughter’s grade in the public elementary school.
Today, Jewish and non-Jewish residents say the landscape has changed and the cultural shift is evident at the Kickstand—a lively and welcoming gathering spot in Arlington Center. Opened five years ago by business partners Emily Shea and Mark Ostow, the cafe’s patrons reflect the town’s increasingly multi-ethnic population. It’s not unusual to hear conversations in French, Spanish and Japanese.
In the 10 years between the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study and the most recent survey in 2015, Arlington moved from a low-density Jewish area to a medium-to-high area, according to Daniel Parmer, associate research scientist at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute, which conducted the studies and produced both reports. “It was a notable change,” he recently told JewishBoston over a cup of coffee at the Kickstand.
Parmer and his wife, Jodie, who works for a synagogue in Lexington, moved to Arlington three years ago. With their two school-age children, they could be the poster family for Jewish Arlington.
They are part of an explosion of young families moving in, he observed, attracted by its location, relatively affordable home prices and a school system that now ranks high on all metrics.
“It felt vibrant,” he said of their decision to buy a home here.
The Parmers, who are members of the synagogue where Jodie works, are part of a self-created community of Jewish families that socialize together for outings and on Jewish holidays and Shabbat, Parmer said.
While there are no statistics on residents’ religious affiliation, town manager Adam Chapdelaine is more aware of Jewish people living in town since he began his job eight years ago. These days, when organizing events or preparing the calendar, town leaders take note of the major Jewish holidays to avoid scheduling conflicts, he told JewishBoston.
The demographic change has attracted the attention of Jewish community organizations that are devoting resources to meet the needs of Jewish families in town.
From a small pilot program launched in 2009, the JCC, with support from CJP, has expanded its offerings, with 50 programs this year, including drop-in playgroups in a rented space in town and a broad range of social gatherings and classes, according to Stephanie Marlin-Curiel, the organization’s Metro North family engagement coordinator, who lives in Arlington.
Five years ago, Rabbi Avi Bukiet and his wife, Luna Bukiet, moved to Arlington and opened the Center for Jewish Life that holds Shabbat and holiday services and offers a range of programs, Rabbi Bukiet told JewishBoston. Fifty children attend its twice-weekly school.
Bukiet and Marlin-Curiel both noted that Arlington’s Jewish residents include many interfaith and multi-ethnic families. “In Arlington, people are looking for a Jewish connection that intersects with the diversity of their experience,” Marlin-Curiel wrote in a follow-up email.
But many of Arlington’s Jews do belong to nearby synagogues in Lexington, Somerville, Medford, Burlington, Belmont and Winchester.
More than 100 of Winchester’s Temple Shir Tikvah’s 350 member families live in Arlington, as does its rabbi, Cari Bricklin-Small, and about 70 percent of the synagogue’s religious school’s children.
Kickstand “is like our other office,” Bricklin-Small quipped, noting that she and cantor Beth Levin often hold synagogue-related meetings at the cafe.
The cafe is also a meeting spot for leaders from Somerville’s Temple B’nai Brith, according to Arlington resident Joshua Meltzer, the treasurer of the synagogue, which has many members who live in Arlington.
Janet Freedman, a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is a regular at Kickstand. Freedman and her husband relocated from Dartmouth to Arlington about a dozen years ago to be closer to her daughter’s family, members of Shir Tikvah.
“I immediately felt comfortable as a Jew in Arlington,” Freedman wrote in an email. “Kickstand is a place where I’ve met many people with whom I can ‘talk Jewish.’”
The comfort level Jews experience in town was jolted last year by acts of anti-Semitic vandalism at two of the town’s schools. While deeply disturbing, those who spoke with JewishBoston said it does not change their positive feelings about the town. The incidents reflect the steep spike in the number of such incidents across Massachusetts and the country, and are not unique to Arlington, Bricklin-Small and others observed. People interviewed praised the swift and strong response from town and school officials, the police department and the community as a whole.
Behind the scenes
The cafe’s Jewish patrons appreciate its inviting, communal ambiance. The appealing and varied menu, and the quality of the food, is also a draw.
For co-owners Shea and Ostow, who are a constant presence, greeting patrons and creating a space that fosters community through good food reflects their deepest values, each told JewishBoston in separate conversations.
Shea, who has lived in Arlington since 1994 and raised three children here, says they want Kickstand to be a welcoming place. “I would hope we live in a world where that is the case. But it’s sad that it’s not and it’s increasingly less so,” she observed.
Ostow, a nationally prominent Cambridge-based photographer, acknowledged he’s no expert in cafes, but he finds the idea of them attractive. “Even if it sounds corny, [I like the idea] of bringing people together. I love, love the amount of energy here and of running into different people here,” Ostow told JewishBoston.
Friendly baristas and staff chat regularly with customers, contributing to the warm atmosphere.
While the cafe attracts people from all walks of life, Ostow has picked up on the number of Jews who frequent the cafe, though maybe he notices it more because it’s familiar. Like Shea, he is heartened by the cafe’s congenial spirit.
“I see people striking up conversations with strangers,” Ostow said. “In this world, we don’t see that much. I see a friendliness that I don’t see outside the doors.”
By the numbers
The number of challahs sold weekly at Quebrada Baking Company in its East Arlington shop. The bakery has been turning out stunning, triple-braided challahs for more than 40 years, long before the recent uptick in Jewish families moving to town. Come the High Holidays, sales of the gorgeous, large round loaves go up in multiples, according to Claire Rabin, longtime bakery manager. The delicious challah, with a bit of whole wheat flour and a touch of butter, has a devoted following, with some 25 people who have weekly standing orders. On Friday afternoons and during the High Holidays, the bakery is the place in town that has the feel of a Jewish neighborhood.
As of June, the number of Jewish children’s books sent by PJ Library to Metro North families in Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, Watertown and other towns. That’s nearly one-third of all the PJ Library books the JCC sends to families across Greater Boston.