House-Hunting, Religiously

By Gayle Young
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 6, 2005

When Tamar Zacheim and her husband heard from their agent about a two-bedroom condo for sale in Georgetown, they immediately sat down and crunched the numbers.

But unlike other young couples, the Zacheims weren't calculating mortgage payments and taxes. Instead, they first wanted to determine how far the property was from an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

They punched in addresses on the popular Google maps Web site and the numbers that came up were fantastic. The condo is about one-third of a mile from the Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue. The walk would take only about seven minutes.

"We have to be in a one-mile radius and obviously the closer the better," said Zacheim, the new mother of a baby daughter.

Like other Orthodox Jews who strictly follow the tenets of their faith, the couple must walk to their synagogue on the Sabbath and holy days. Such observant Jews are not allowed to drive, take a taxi or ride a bike during the Sabbath. In some instances, they cannot even carry a handbag or push a baby stroller.

For that reason, homes immediately surrounding the region's few Orthodox synagogues are hotly pursued by members of the community, a fact not always well known to home sellers, agents and other prospective buyers who are interested in the same properties.

"In a way it's a shame, because most people can live anywhere and yet they might be bidding on a home that's highly, highly desirable to an observant family," said Minka Goldstein, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. Of course, she said, the most competitive bid is going to win a house, "It's a business transaction. But it can be very hard for the family."

The area's super-heated real estate market has made finding a home challenging for almost any buyer. But it has become exceedingly difficult for Orthodox Jews who are relocating to the area, or local families who are trying to trade up to larger homes.

"They're really tied to very specific areas," Goldstein said. "They can't say, 'Oh, we'll just move further out and find something we can afford.' "

The problem is exacerbated because most of the region's Orthodox synagogues were established decades ago in neighborhoods that have become expensive. Kesher Israel is in the heart of Georgetown. Several other Orthodox synagogues are tucked into Silver Spring and Potomac. In all, there are fewer than a dozen Orthodox communities in the metropolitan area. And, for the most part, the real estate market in those areas has become tight and expensive, with the few mid-priced homes that go on the market routinely receiving multiple offers.

Elanit Rothschild is the housing coordinator for Kesher Israel, which provides real estate listings and housing tips on its community Web site. She said the search is much easier for singles and young couples, especially if they want to rent rather than buy.

When she moved to the District two years ago, the synagogue gave her a list of rentals in the area, and she signed a lease in a building that houses other members of her community.

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