SAN FRANCISCO — They were looking to move anyway, said Stephanie Butler. And the $50,000 incentive being offered by Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, Ala., to young Jewish families willing to relocate helped tip the scales.
“We never would have looked at Dothan if not for this program,” she said.
The Reform congregation in Dothan is one of several dozen synagogues nationwide offering loans, grants and a variety of other incentives to attract young families to their communities. In addition to the loans, which are usually tied to down payments on a house and can turn into grants if the families stay long enough, most of these synagogues help newcomers to find jobs and direct them to friendly lawyers, contractors and mortgage brokers who often give them steep discounts.
Dothan’s $50,000 relocation loan, which becomes a grant after five years, is one of the most generous offers. But rural Alabama is a harder draw than, say, Southfield, Mich., where the local Young Israel congregation is offering young couples a $7,200 five-year, interest-free loan toward a down payment on a home.
Just three families have taken up Dothan’s offer, and only one has since moved away. Twenty-two families have moved to Southfield, a heavily Jewish suburb of Detroit. Only five took advantage of the loan program.
Most of these relocation incentive programs began in the past several years. Some have been more successful than others, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much money they’re offering. Those who have made the move mention geographic desirability, the availability of jobs, and the attractiveness of the local Jewish community much more than they mention the money.
“The money is to show we’re excited about people coming to the community, but it’s a small part of what we do to attract families,” said Rabbi Yechiel Morris, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Southfield.
Another factor is also at play. Unlike Dothan’s Reform congregation, virtually all the others offering such incentives are Orthodox. Orthodox families moving to a new neighborhood look for homes within walking distance of the synagogue and expect to become actively involved in local Jewish life.
Jews moving to Dothan go through an extensive vetting process, including personal visits, and they sign forms pledging to join the congregation and to remain in town for at least five years.
“This is about fit,” said Robert Goldsmith, executive director of the Family Relocation Project of the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan. The goal of the project is to bring in 20 Jewish families by 2015 with incentive packages of up to $50,000 each. “We’re not buying Jews here with a blank check.”
Temple Emanu-El was down to 43 families when donor Larry Blumberg established the project in the fall of 2007, soon after Goldsmith and his wife, Lynne, the congregation’s new rabbi, moved to town. “We didn’t want to shut our doors, like other small congregations,” he said.
The Associated Press ran a story on the incentives program, followed by spots on the Jay Leno and Howard Stern shows. Thousands of inquiries poured in from around the world. “We had 100,000 hits in one day,” Goldsmith said. “It crashed our server.”
But few candidates have gone the distance with the program. The first family that responded, arriving in early 2009, moved away when the husband was laid off. “The recession has hurt us,” Goldsmith said. In response, the congregation switched focus, reaching out to empty nesters through a series of ads placed in Hadassah, Moment and Reform Judaism magazines. Currently, 11 older couples are partway through the application process; one couple is expected to move in soon.
Jews willing to move to Dothan “need an adventurous spirit,” said Goldsmith. That’s less true of those who move to Oceanside, N.Y., a Long Island community with a large, active Young Israel congregation located 15 minutes from the heavily Jewish Five Towns area.
With 180 families, Young Israel of Oceanside is far from endangered. But the congregation wants to boost its number of young families, said Rabbi Jonathan Muskat.
In 2007, the synagogue rolled out a rich incentive program capped by a $30,000 interest-free loan that becomes a grant after 10 years. The first five couples that moved in that year got the full amount. The next five received $20,000, and the final cohort got $10,000. Altogether, 35 new families moved into the community, many without any financial incentive at all.
Jake and Nomi Weinberg were part of the first cohort, moving in three years ago from nearby Woodmere, N.Y. They had two children at the time; now, they have three.
The loan “was definitely a draw,” said 32-year-old Jake Weinberg. But they would have moved to Oceanside anyway, he said, adding, “No one should move just for a down payment.”
Muskat echoes that sentiment. Young Israel of Oceanside offers the incentive only to couples likely to take on leadership roles in the congregation, the rabbi said. Virtually all of the new families come from large Orthodox congregations in the Greater New York area. The real draw, Muskat said, is being part of a younger congregation where they can make a difference right away. Weinberg agrees. “You don’t get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to have your voice heard. It’s not like a big shul, where you have to be there years and years and donate a lot of money before you can do anything.”
In an effort to showcase communities for families seeking to relocate, the Orthodox Union sponsored its first Emerging Communities Conference in New York in 2008. Fourteen congregations set up booths at that first conference. Thirty-five have registered for the third conference on March 22, including shuls from cities as large as Phoenix and Las Vegas, and as small as Chesterfield, Mo. and Norfolk, Va.
“It sows the seeds,” said Frank Buchweitz, national director of community services for the OU. “People don’t even know there are Jewish communities outside the New York area.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Josh Elberg and his wife, Naomi Preminger, 27, moved from Montreal to Southfield, Mich., after meeting Young Israel members Monica and Ari Fischman at the 2009 OU conference. “We spoke to them; we felt them out,” said Monica Fischman. More important, said Elberg, the Fischmans followed up.
“We found some very nice communities at the conference – Houston, Dallas, Denver, Memphis, St. Louis,” said Elberg. “I followed up with all of them, but the only ones who followed up consistently with us were from Southfield.”
That personal connection, not the $7,200 relocation loan, was what clinched the deal, he added. Last summer, the Fischmans hosted Elberg for a Shabbaton. They had a barbecue and introduced him to people, and Monica Fischman found the couple a house on the same street where her parents live.
Elberg is already living in Southfield, and his wife will follow with their three children after Passover.
“The loan made life easier,” Elberg said, “but if they hadn’t offered it, we wouldn’t have cared.”
As more and more congregations get into the incentives game, some poaching is bound to occur, particularly in the shul-heavy towns of northern New Jersey and the New York area.
Newsday recently ran a story on Dan and Atara Marzouk, who moved to Plainview, N.Y., last October, taking advantage of a $25,000 interest-free loan offered by the local Young Israel congregation.
But the Marzouks were moving away from Linden, N.J., where their home synagogue, Congregation Anshe Chesed, is also offering an incentive program to new families.
Rabbi Joshua Hess of Anshe Chesed doesn’t consider it poaching. He said that 15 young families have moved to Linden, and all have taken advantage of either the buyer’s or the renter’s incentive offer. Dan Marzouk had a two-and-a-half-hour daily commute to his job in Long Island, and even Hess told him the family needed to move. “It wasn’t sustainable,” the rabbi said.
Meanwhile, Anshe Chesed has only 17 younger families among its 115 member units, and the congregation is running out of funding for its incentive program.
“Once we have a critical mass, we won’t need it anymore,” Hess said. “The hope is that young couples will want to be here.”