Saturday night is bowling night for the Jews of Dothan, Alabama.
On a hot night in July, four families braved the torrential rain and gathered for the monthly meeting of the “Mitzvah League,” the town’s Jewish bowling team. Dothan Lanes is a non-descript, squat, faded building on the side of Montgomery Highway. Even the sign looks tired: The “A” and “L” are missing. A poster in the entrance earnestly advertises “pure bowling fun!” Next door is the local gun store, advertising a Glock sale.
Jewish kids, all under the age of 10, scampered up and down the alley while their parents leaned over the bowling ball dispenser to chat with their neighbors under the garish fluorescent lighting. This is, by necessity, a tight-knit community. It is also a growing one — a rare thing in the small-town South.
The town of Dothan was incorporated in 1885. Its name, borrowed from an ancient Biblical town, was chosen after residents discovered that “Poplar Head” was already taken. Jews arrived fairly soon after that. In 1892, German immigrants Emanuel and Amelia Crine settled in Dothan with their children. More Jews followed, their fortunes tied to the fluctuating peanut industry — Dothan vies with Plains, Georgia, for the title of “Peanut Capital of the World.”
In 1929, 14 families founded the town’s first congregation, Temple Emanu-El. But by the 1980s, a declining economy had prompted many Jews to leave. According to the Institute on Southern Jewish Life, Dothan had an estimated 205 Jewish residents in 1980. By 2000, there were only 100.
In 2008, the dwindling community launched a last-ditch effort to ensure a Jewish future in Dothan. Larry Blumberg, a prominent real estate entrepreneur, comes from one of Temple Emanu-El’s original founding families. He pledged $1 million over 10 years to fund a relocation program, which offers up to $50,000 in moving expenses and start-up money for families willing to move to the Alabama town — and stay there for at least five years. In the six years since the program launched, eight families have made the jump, with two more expected before the High Holidays.
“It’s worked beautifully for us,” said Rob Goldsmith, executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services. He and his wife, Lynne Goldsmith, moved to Dothan when she was appointed rabbi of the Reform Temple Emanu-El.
The relocation program had its 15 minutes of fame when major media outlets got wind of it. “I never thought I’d be on ‘Howard Stern,’” Goldsmith said. Media attention has since flagged, but the program continues to draw applicants from all over the country.
Goldsmith, who initially received emails to the tune of “I’m not Jewish, but I’ll convert for $50,000,” is quick to point out that no lump sum is given up front. “We’re not writing blank checks and buying Jews,” he said.