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Lonesome Prairie: Midwest Young Head for Coasts

OMAHA, Neb. — Aaron Pollak looks back fondly on his childhood on the prairie. He recalls bicycling over Omaha’s rolling hills, walking on the Old Market’s cobblestone streets, playing at the JCC day camp and participating in the Jewish community.

But there’s no beach in Omaha, no thriving nightlife. There aren’t any national parks nearby, or any sidewalk cafes bursting with talk of environmentalism and feminism. So Pollak, 28, following swarms of his corn-fed peers, left his hometown for the sunnier pastures — er, hills — of San Francisco.

That decision was based upon “a little bit of wanderlust, and a little bit career,” Pollak said in a telephone interview. Though he’s “considering” returning to his hometown, for now, his absence accounts for one less Jew in Omaha. That puts him among the growing number who have — at times, reluctantly — kissed the Great Plains goodbye.

Though small, there are Jewish communities in prairie towns such as Omaha; Des Moines, Iowa; and Tulsa, Okla. They are often vibrant, close-knit communities with high rates of affiliation — the trouble is, few people want to live there. Jewish communities across the Great Plains have seen their numbers dwindle in recent years, some with alarming alacrity. According to population statistics in the American Jewish Yearbook, between 1972 and 2002, North Dakota saw its Jewish population drop from 2,000 to 450, South Dakota from 2,050 to 300, Nebraska from 9,200 to 7,000 and Iowa, 9,500 to 6,100.

Small-town communities have been the hardest hit: In 1960, there were 119 Jewish communities in the Midwest, while in 1997 there were 96. In Duluth, Minn., the Jewish population has dwindled so dramatically that the local community federation closed two years ago. In Cheyenne, Wyo., the small community’s Jewish cemetery is maintained by the Cheyenne Jewish Cemetery Association — headquartered in Hollywood, Calif.

In Omaha, the community of some 6,500 Jews has remained relatively stable throughout the decades. But a dark cloud looms on the horizon. As the population ages — and many seek retirement in booming Sun Belt communities — replacements aren’t waiting in the wings. “The reality is many of our children don’t come back,” said Jan Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Omaha. “They want to go to larger cities.”

Said Oliver Pollak, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska — and Aaron’s father — “I don’t know many people whose children are here.” His other son moved to Berkeley, Calif.

“The biggest challenge, which is not necessarily unique to Omaha, is trying to retain the next generation,” said Steven Pitlor, an engineer and the president of Omaha’s federation. He has children living in Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Call it the Great Plains Drain. Throughout the 1990s, the young residents of the rural states have fled the prairie for the bright lights and big thrills of the East and West Coasts. According to the 2000 Census, on average, the American population growth over the previous decade was 13.2%. In the middle of the country, however, the rates of growth skewed lower: Nebraska grew 8.4%, Iowa 5.4% and North Dakota, at 0.5%, barely grew at all.

Jews tend to be at the forefront of this population shift. “White-collar workers tend to move further, and faster, than blue-collar workers,” said Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami. “Jews tend to be doctors, lawyers and university professors, rather than plumbers and mechanics. If you’re a factory worker and you lose your job, there’s usually other jobs locally. If you’re a professor and you lose your job, there aren’t that many choices locally.”

Of course, there are exceptions to the trend, such as Minneapolis, which has seen its Jewish community grow by 10,000 over the past decade to 31,500 Jews. Iowa, too, boasts the new rural Jewish community of Postville, which became home of the country’s highest rabbi-per-capita ratio when a Brooklyn chasid opened a kosher slaughterhouse in the 1980s.

Even in Nebraska, as the Omaha federation commemorates its 100th anniversary, there is much to celebrate. Over the past five years, the federation’s annual campaign has raised some $3 million dollars each year; this year, an additional $1 million was raised within three months for an Israel Emergency Campaign. Omaha itself is thriving; far from being a blueberry-sized blip on a pancake-flat stretch of empty land, Omaha is spreading outward, new restaurants are opening and synagogues in the western suburbs are almost always under renovation.

There is a profound sense of history in Omaha; it’s the kind of place where a name on a building is not an abstraction, but rather that of a well-loved, much-respected grandmother or family friend.

And yet, that sense of history is being threatened. As the younger generation marches away — often to large communities where a great majority of Jews are unaffiliated — there are few people lining up to take their place.

“For us, outreach means a far different thing than it does in the Silicon Valley area,” the local federation’s Goldstein said, noting Omaha’s focus on attracting new people to the area, rather than enticing residents to participate in Jewish life. “In a solid Midwest community you have great values and traditions that are attractive to young families. We have to make sure we showcase those things we have to offer here — like a connected, supportive Jewish community.”

“The trick is to try and get young people back here,” said Pitlor, the federation president. “If we don’t — and we’re seeing it already — we’re going to lose numbers. It affects not only the size of your community, but your ability to raise the kind of money you need.”

Omaha’s Jewish community raised $15 million over the past five years for improvements to the Jewish Community Center, including upgrades of the fitness center and the transformation of an entire wing into a child development center. The federation is also looking to match those wishing to return with local businesses and companies that may be hiring, Goldstein said.

A similar tactic is employed by the Jewish Federation of Des Moines, with a community of 2,800, which is developing a job recruitment Web site for young professionals, said the federation’s executive director, Elaine Steinger. In addition, having recently resettled a few hundred Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the community is now looking to find employment for Argentine Jews, she said.

“Children and grandchildren, after they attend university, do not come back to Iowa to work,” Steinger said. “It’s true for the general community — it’s a problem for the entire state of Iowa.”

“It’s difficult to maintain a Jewish community that’s small,” Sheskin said. “If you’re Jewish and you grew up in rural Nebraska and go to college in Chicago, chances you will want to return are slim.”

In general, said Sheskin, the Miami demographer, Jews tend to live in bigger cities. “Jews have been moving out of the Northeast and the Midwest, but, at the same time, the percentage of people who live in big cities has remained the same,” he said, noting that 92% of American Jews live in a community with more than 10,000 Jews.

Still, there’s a sign that a countertrend may be developing. “We are finding, slowly, that there is a movement out of the larger cities,” Steinger said. “Some young families are beginning to find places like Des Moines as a place that is much more pleasant to live, we have better school systems, and it’s safer.”

Pitlor agreed. “One of the areas where we think lies some optimism is that people are going to tire of living shoulder to shoulder, having to pay the kind of prices they have to pay,” he said. “There’s an attraction to the mid-sized city, the desirability in terms of lifestyle, housing costs, crime rates.”

“It takes a lot of passion and commitment to maintain something that was done a generation or two before us,” Pitlor said. “That’s what it’s all about — maintaining the tradition that was before us.”

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