Wanted: Jewish families

Offered as much as $50,000 to relocate to Dothan, Alabama.

September 9, 2008 09:12
3 minute read.
Wanted: Jewish families

magen david 63. (photo credit: )

Larry Blumberg is looking for a few good Jews to move to his heavily Christian corner of the US South. Blumberg is chairman of the Blumberg Family Relocation Fund, which is offering Jewish families as much as $50,000 to relocate to Dothan, an overwhelmingly Christian town of 58,000 that calls itself the Peanut Capital of the World. Get involved at Temple Emanu-El and stay at least five years, the group's leaders say, and the money doesn't have to be repaid. More Jews are living in the southeastern US than ever - about 386,000 at last count in 2001, according to Stuart Rockoff, historian at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi. But young Jews are leaving small places like Dothan in favor of big southern cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, Rockoff said, and dozens of small-town synagogues have closed in the so-called Bible Belt, an area of predominantly Christian southern states. "A lot of the older people have died, and not many of the younger ones have stayed," said Thelma Nomberg, a member of the Dothan temple who grew up in nearby Ozark, where she was the only Jewish student in public school in the 1940s. "We are dying." Trying to lure Jewish families to a quiet Southern town in a state with a reputation for hard-right politics and racial intolerance might be difficult. About 20 Jewish families have sought information about Dothan, though none has made the move. Being outside the Christian majority was never a problem, Nomberg said, even six decades ago: She won the Miss Ozark beauty pageant at 14 and sometimes attended church with friends after sleep-overs. Now a widow, Nomberg has watched two of her four adult children leave for Florida as Temple Emanu-El lost nearly half its membership, down to about 50 families. She can only hope the recruitment plan works for her synagogue. Launched in June, the Blumberg program has put advertisements in Jewish newspapers in Boston, Miami, Providence, Rhode Island, and Washington, and it plans to expand the campaign. "I think it's important that we try to find young people that we could use in our religious school, our Sunday school and help in the way of trying to create more of a family-type atmosphere in our temple," Blumberg said. Groups offered financial aid for Jews to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Jewish organizations around the country offer moving assistance for relocating families. A congregation has loans and other benefits for Jewish families moving into an area near Boston. "Our program is distinctive because it's Dothan, but it's also distinctive because of the type of financial assistance," said Rob Goldsmith, executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services, which will screen applicants and administer the grant program. Rockoff credits Blumberg and the rest of the congregation with fighting to remain in Dothan, where the synagogue has a full-time rabbi and the temple, which is aligned with the reform movement. "It is a small community, but they have some deep pockets to be able to do this," said Rockoff. "As a historian, it is fascinating to see them trying to buck this trend." Dothan lies at the heart of the South's peanut region, in Alabama's southeastern corner, just minutes from Florida and Georgia. It's dotted with big fiberglass peanuts painted to resemble characters and people - there's even an Elvis peanut. But the Blumberg foundation is selling prospective Jewish residents on Dothan's quality of life - its low cost of living, the heritage of its synagogue and its proximity to Florida beaches, about 80 miles away. Downtown is filled with quaint red-brick buildings and colorful murals, and traffic never gets too bad. Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith didn't know quite what to expect when she moved to Dothan a year ago to serve as pastor at Temple Emanu-El, which was founded in 1929. She came with her husband, who directs the Jewish community services group. A Connecticut native, the rabbi halfway expected the Alabama of old with wide-open racism and dirt roads. "The Northeast has a really warped perception of what the South is all about, and I found out it was all wrong," she said. "The South is a wonderful place to be. The people are warm and friendly. There's very little traffic. And best of all, there's no snow." ___ On the Net: Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services: http://www.bfjcs.org

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