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.
In fact, no one family has reached the $50,000 allotment. Typical reimbursement is $25,000 to 35,000, covering moving costs, security deposits, home appliances, and the like.
The application process includes a 60 to 90 minute phone call, after which Goldsmith will fly to meet the family in their hometown, before they visit Dothan. Applicants also fill out a questionnaire answering queries like “How long are you planning to live in Dothan and why?”
That last question is important. In order for this plan to work, the community must draw in families with young children, and keep them there.
Stephanie and Kevin Butler moved to Dothan from St. Petersburg, Florida, four and a half years ago. Their house is modest but inviting — plastic toys litter the porch and a bright blue “B” for Butler hangs on the front door. Inside, their two boys, Isaac, 8, and Eli, 6, are watching “Back to The Future: Part III.” According to Stephanie, they’re thriving in Dothan, where they attend the local Hebrew school, organized by Temple Emanu-El.
Their parents, too, find things to like: the sense of community; the low cost of living (average rent in Dothan is $580 per month); the quiet lifestyle; the lack of traffic; and the sense of being a part of a Jewish renewal.
“That’s one of the cheesy reasons I chose to do this,” Stephanie Butler said. “Maintaining Jewish life.”
Still, as an English teacher, Butler has misgivings about the quality of education in the area. She commutes 45 minutes each way to teach in Chipley, Florida. Education Week gives Alabama a C+ ranking, one of the lowest in the country. Jewish kids often have to deal with ignorance about their beliefs and practices: Eli was recently asked to write a journal about why he loves going to church on Easter. When his mother raised the issue with the school, they seemed to understand, but the next year, the problem just resurfaced. And again the year after that.
“There’s a lot of Christmas during Christmastime. A minimal amount is fine. But at some point, they just cross the line. [The kids] just feel pressured to do what’s expected.”
But for the Butlers, what will make or break their commitment to their new life is the quality of Jewish education for their children. There is no day school in the area, and no plans to open one in the foreseeable future: The community is still too small to support it.
“The reason we moved here was to enrich their lives,” Kevin Butler said of his children. “If we see that the education system here isn’t able to continue doing that, then we’ll seek it elsewhere.”
Though the program is actively seeking families with young children, there’s another category of people who are drawn to Dothan: empty nesters.
Karen Nanning and her husband Russ Nanning moved from Augusta, Georgia, just over two years ago after seeing an ad in Reform Judaism Magazine. As a helicopter pilot, Russ was able to relocate easily — aviation is one of the top employers in the area. This is a second marriage for both of them — their grown children are scattered from Seattle to upstate New York.
Karen Nanning’s black service dog — an excitable poodle named Maddie — jumps out at visitors as soon as they enter. So does the Jewish bling. Hebrew artwork and tchochkes adorn the walls and shelves; a Star of David glimmers against Nanning’s neck.
“My Jewish identity means much more to me here than it ever did before,” she said, adding that she was recently appointed director of the growing Sunday school at Temple Emanu-El, something she never would have expected before moving to Dothan.
With Russ traveling frequently for work, Nanning often turns to Jewish Dothan’s busy social calendar. Four Jewish families live in the neighborhood — “We call ourselves ‘The Shtetl’” — and Nanning’s pool is a favorite hang out spot. Maddie, especially, is a big draw for the kids. In addition to the bowling league, there’s a mah-jongg group, and holiday potluck dinners.
“You can get involved here,” Nanning said. “I was worried when we moved down here, you know, I have a disability and my husband is gone. I told Russ, ‘What if I need something?’ He goes: ‘You will have 20 people to call who will gladly do it.’ And it’s true.”
Nanning admits that most of her friends in Dothan are Jewish, but relations with non-Jews are pleasant, and characterized by curiosity more than anything else. People will say things like “Do Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?” or “You’re my first one!”
Asked about whether there is an inherent value in keeping Jewish life alive in small Southern towns, she said: “The South needs it to keep real. Because otherwise, it’s insular… They need to be exposed to other people.”
Her husband Russ is in the process of converting, due in part to his conversations with Temple Emanu-El’s rabbi, Lynne Goldsmith — or as everyone calls her, Rabbi Lynne.
“There are a lot of people converting,” Lynne Goldsmith said. “There was a joke for a while that I had converted more people than Rob had brought in through the program.”
In her seven years in Dothan, the congregation has doubled in size to over 70 member families. Her vision for the community is simple: “People join congregations because they want friends, they want other Jews to hang out with — and we do that extremely well.”
As for what Jewish Dothan will look like in 10 years, the rabbi said, “It’s really hard to tell. It depends on how the economy does and on what happens to the schools — that seems to be our one stumbling block.”
Long-term Dothan residents who have watched their own kids move away share that sentiment.
Eddie Marblestone and his wife Roberta have lived in Dothan almost their entire lives. When their kids left for college, they didn’t come back. Now, Eddie sits on the relocation program’s committee, and has helped plan out the long-term goals.
Six years into the program, he says Jewish life in Dothan is “thriving.” But the future is less certain. Asked whether he’s hopeful that the children who have moved here will stay past college age, he paused. “Not really.”
Anne Cohen is a Forward staff writer. Sigal Samuel is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor.