Southern fried Judaism

What would lure a Jewish family to move to Dothan, Alabama? Community members are hoping $50,000 will.

Robert Goldsmith 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Robert Goldsmith 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy )
While the predominantly Christian population of Dothan, Alabama, starts drawing up its Christmas lists this year, the tiny Jewish population in this town known as the "Peanut Capital of the World" is hoping for its own Hanukka miracle: the arrival of at least one new Jewish family into its bosom. So what would lure American Jews happily ensconced in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ohio and beyond to a town with almost 60,000 hard-line right-wing, devout Christians and fewer than 50 Jewish families? About $50,000 if Larry Blumberg - chairman of the Blumberg Family Relocation Fund at the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan - has anything to say about it. Blumberg - a third generation resident of Dothan - launched the initiative at the beginning of the year and is putting up $1 million in an effort to relocate families to Dothan, with the promise of a low cost of living, great Floridian beaches just 125 km. from the town, a healthier, relaxed lifestyle, and a close-knit Jewish community focused around Temple Emanu-El, the town's only (Reform) synagogue. However, Blumberg's not about to simply cut just anyone a check for $50,000. The funds are offered as a grant, and prospective residents are required to undergo a rigorous vetting process and must fulfill several criteria. No singles allowed, only families with young children. The families must commit to staying in Dothan for five years in order to receive the full grant. In addition, they must pass background checks, join the synagogue, and basically promise to be an active participant in the community. The task of wading through the applications falls to Robert Goldsmith, executive director of The Blumberg Jewish Community Services of Dothan. Goldsmith moved to Dothan from Cincinnati with his wife, Lynne, just 14 months ago, when she was hired as Dothan's new rabbi, making her the first full-time female rabbi in the state of Alabama. Goldsmith says he has been inundated with over 1,300 e-mails and telephone calls from people wanting to know more and not just from within the US. As soon as the Associated Press caught wind of the project and the story was picked up around the globe, calls came in from as far as China, South America, Africa, Asia and Israel. But Goldsmith was quick to point out that there simply are not enough funds to relocate families from outside the US, so they should stop applying. As a new transplant to Dothan, Goldsmith is the perfect candidate to tout its praises. He describes his own move as "a positive culture shock," saying that Cincinnati was just too big for him and his wife. With the economy in a downward spiral, moving to Dothan makes a lot of sense, says Goldsmith. "An average home for a family of four here goes for about $25,000, we pay less than $1,000 per year in property taxes, we're 75 minutes from great beaches and we're far enough inland to not be affected by hurricanes." Dothan is primarily a service economy, at the center of a 160-km. radius reaching out to the larger towns of Birmingham and Montgomery, Tallahassee and those in western Georgia. As a result some 65,000 people come into Dothan for federal and government office services, for the mall with its 90 stores, the two major hospitals and several hundred doctors offices, and two colleges. This, says Goldsmith, makes relocating to Dothan perfect for those who work in any of the above professions, including those in the teaching and finance professions. There's even a Jewish Chamber of Commerce. Yet while Goldsmith espouses what he calls "the new south" with its myriad of economic opportunities, is this really a town that can provide a strong, Jewish life akin to that lived in the larger cities of Chicago, Florida, New York, Detroit, etc.? Goldsmith says he is extremely candid with applicants about living and raising a family in Dothan. "The upside is that Dothan is a progressive town with a longstanding Jewish community that has enormous respect from its Christian neighbors, a long history of interfaith education activities and no history of anti-Semitism." However, on the downside, he makes it very clear that with its predominantly Christian culture, "It's not easy to be Jewish here. Your child may be the only Jewish child in his or her school." Still, Goldsmith cites examples where parents come into the classrooms to talk to the kids about Hanukka, where he and his wife were invited to a 900-strong public dinner, which began with an invocation praising 'Our Lord Jesus Christ.' At that same event, dinner was chicken cordon bleu wrapped in ham. He and his wife simply asked for a tossed salad explaining why they couldn't eat the meal. "It became a teaching moment," he says. That's why when applicants ask if there is a kosher butcher in Dothan, Goldsmith replies: "Get real, this is the Deep South. We have a Reform synagogue, a female rabbi, and no Orthodox community of any significance. If you want a kosher butcher, move to Atlanta." Nonetheless, Goldsmith says Temple Emanu-El does everything the "big guys do. In 80 years this synagogue has not missed a Shabbat evening service. There is Torah study on Saturday mornings, two hours of religious school, Hebrew instruction for bar and bat mitzva students, as well as adult and interfaith education programs." Longstanding Dothan resident - and one of the town's oldest - Thelma Normberg can attest to the vibrancy of the community. Born in New York in 1933, she moved with her family to Ozark, Alabama, when she was a small child, before her family relocated to Dothan when she was in the fifth grade. "It's just a wonderful way of life here," she enthused. "It hasn't been overrun, Jews are well accepted and even the local country club is open to Jewish membership, which is not an ordinary thing," she says. "But Jews have been a part of this community since it was founded in 1855." Normberg is eager to welcome new families to the town. "The whole core generation that founded this temple is gone and we're into the second and third generation now," she says wistfully. "We don't want to see our congregation die, like others in Alabama have. It's a real tribute to [Larry Blumberg's] heart that he would found such a program. I've known Larry since he was a little bitty fella," she chuckles. Normberg says any families that move to Dothan will be "warmly accepted by the congregation and they can make a place for themselves in this community. It's an easy paced life and if you want to be involved, it's not difficult." She also knows the issues that families will confront. "This is still the Bible Belt land and everyone is very involved with their church and desperate to share it with you," she says. "I've had people tell my granddaughter they're so sad that she's going to burn in hell if she doesn't convert." It's all part of the challenges potential new members will face, but Goldsmith believes the right families will be up for those challenges. "Unlike other Jewish communities in the South, Dothan is not withering," he states emphatically. "It's positive, progressive and healthy. We have a prideful and accomplished community and our passion for tikkun olam has resonated across the world. We've received so many calls from other Jewish communities saying that what we're trying to do is resonating with them - the importance to sustain their own communities." For now though, Goldsmith is back wading through applications. He has three potential families he's about to visit in their homes across the nation (all part of the vetting process) and says he's on track to possibly bringing at least one family to Dothan by Hanukka. "What can I tell you?" he says. "I'm optimistic."