As first time participants in the OU Home and Job Relocation Fair (popularly known as the OU Jewish Communities Fair), representatives of the Young Israel of East Brunswick (YIEB) in central New Jersey knew a game plan was necessary to achieve their goal of enticing young families to move there. Priding itself as “a one shul community,” YIEB has welcomed 15 new families since the OU Fair, held in April 2013.
Bringing new families into the community has been a goal of YIEB in recent years.
When the Tuchman family arrived in 1996, approximately 120 families belonged to the Young Israel. For the next ten years, the community enjoyed a steady increase of about ten new families a year. “East Brunswick was typically a community where people bought instead of rented. Once the recession hit, the housing market collapse reduced the influx of new families,” described Elyse Tuchman, who is part of a core group of volunteers dedicated to recruitment efforts.
In 2010, YIEB, an OU member synagogue, hired the young and dynamic Rabbi Jay Weinstein as senior rabbi as part of its initiative to appeal to a new generation. Like other small-town communities, East Brunswick knew its biggest challenge to appeal to newcomers was simply to get its name known.
“We have a rabbi who works day and night for the betterment of our community and gets our shul involved in everything from federation events, youth programming, meetings with political figures, hosting scholars-in-residence, and inviting OU leadership,” Elyse stressed. “He also feels it is important to form personal connections with all our members. He wants people to learn. He wants people to think. He wants people to care.”
Coming from OU member Congregation Shaare Tefilla in Dallas where he served as the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Weinstein had participated in prior OU Community Fairs and encouraged his new congregation to participate.
Forty-one communities from across the United States were selected to present at the Fair and more than 1,300 Jews from across the spectrum of Jewish observance filtered in and out of the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. Among them were Chaim and Miriam Plumer, then engaged to be married; and Avi and Allison Platschek, then living in Fresh Meadows, Queens. Both couples moved to East Brunswick as a result of the relationship initiated at the Fair.
The Platscheks had been to the OU Communities Fair in 2011 (it is coordinated every other year), looking for a warm, caring, close knit community, smaller in size, with affordable housing and quality yeshivot. They felt “the Fair gave us opportunities to meet individuals from various communities, collect literature, information and contacts” that certainly assisted in their decision making.
The East Brunswick community understood that marketing efforts were two-fold: garnering people’s attention, and developing a potential relationship with those expressing interest. YIEB pitched itself to Fair attendees as an “up and coming Modern Orthodox community with an out-of-town vibe and all the amenities for a Jewish community.” Approximately mid-distance between New York City and Philadelphia, the YIEB community is smaller than nearby Highland Park and Edison, yet with more than 200 families “is a hidden treasure that a family won’t truly appreciate until they experience it,” noted Elyse.
“With 220 families, we’re not too big. Our synagogue is very family oriented, and every family is engaged and involved in Jewish life, creating a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something bigger,” expressed Rabbi Weinstein. “When a family moves here, we set them up with a host family with children of the same age. Every family is essential to the shul.”
Returning in 2013 with a more serious desire to move, Avi and Allison, now with baby Miriam, were initially attracted to the East Brunswick booth because they already knew one family in the community. “Everyone seemed genuinely warm, friendly, caring—so we signed up to visit for a Shabbat,” recalled Avi.
The East Brunswick booth at the OU Community Fair presented an informative, colorful banner and running videos on the community. Informational folders addressed an array of factors relevant to potential newcomers, such as synagogue life—youth groups, sisterhood, learning opportunities; area schools; real estate; mikvah; eruv; kosher food availability; town resources; YIEB incentives; employment options; YIEB member testimonials; and recent events, such as scholars-in-residence, Uncle Moishy concerts and new cycles of Daf Yomi. To stand out creatively, YIEB even gave out blue and white M&M’s personalized with the shul logo.
“The OU Fair was the beginning of our ability to get our name out there and see how people respond after inviting them for a Shabbat, and inviting them to check out our Facebook and shul homepage,” Rabbi Weinstein said.
A month after the OU Fair, YIEB hosted 20 families for Shabbat. More wanted to attend, but the community invited them for a different weekend in order to give maximum attention to each potential family.
“As wonderful as our marketing is, we really invest energies spending one-on-one with families—holding their hand to get them situated with information on schools, housing, and social dynamic of community,” shared Rabbi Weinstein. “When people come here, they walk away inspired.”
Impressed with the community and the rabbi, the Platscheks moved to East Brunswick in February 2014. Avi found work as an ER nurse at a nearby hospital, and they currently rent a town house, looking to eventually own a home.
Chaim and Miriam Plumer were married in August 2013 and chose East Brunswick as their first home. “Representatives at the East Brunswick booth looked like a nice mix of individuals—some seemed more modern, some more religious—and we could tell that everyone was respectful of each other’s lifestyles. The friendliness and sincerity really resonated with us,” expressed Miriam. “We went to visit one day, and a shul volunteer showed us around town. We got a good feeling, and jumped in.”
At the time of their marriage, Miriam, originally from Passaic, NJ, was also a student at Rutgers University and the couple wished to reside nearby. Chaim, a Staten Island native, commuted to Brooklyn. Although Miriam is finished at Rutgers, the couple decided to stay in East Brunswick. They currently rent an apartment. “East Brunswick is a very special community and we’re very happy here,” Miriam articulated. “If you ever needed assistance from someone, they gladly offer help. So many people offered to help us find housing. People are genuinely kind here and I don’t find that with many other communities. I don’t feel I’m being judged by where I’m holding hashkafically, and that is something I didn’t think I would find.”
The YIEB recruitment committee collected information from those expressing interest in the community at the OU Fair and keeps in touch every three months, sending updates on the community with photos.
The 15 new families moved from West Hartford, CT, St. Louis, MO; Brooklyn, and Queens, and Riverdale, NY; Englewood and Teaneck, NJ; Scranton, PA, and as far away as London.
Rabbi Weinstein and his family are scheduled to visit synagogues in more transient communities around in the New York/New Jersey area whose congregants are interested in learning more about East Brunswick and YIEB.
“We always thought that East Brunswick was the type of community you move to when you’re ready to buy a house and ready to leave an apartment. We now have seven young couples with either one baby or no children who live in nearby apartment complexes, and they add a whole new dynamic to our shul,” the rabbi said.
“When we moved to East Brunswick, people would ask us ‘where’s that?’ Now when I mention East Brunswick, people tell me they have a friend considering the community,” reflected Elyse Tuchman. “We met a few hundred individuals at the OU Fair and in today’s connected world, a few hundred conversations can generate the type of awareness our community needs. I believe that going to the OU fair put us on the map, and we definitely want to participate in it again.”
The next OU Jewish Communities Fair is scheduled for April 2015.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.