In Search of Jewish Life Outside of New York

BY
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23 Mar 2011
Community

Originally published in June 2009 and reprinted with permission of Judah S. Harris

I learned a lot during my undergraduate years at Yeshiva University, but it was during the three years that followed, while employed as an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, that I finally got to know Jewish America.

I didn’t get to know all of Jewish America, but through personal experience – which means lots of traveling during that time – I grasped that there was a Jewish America; there was life outside of the New York area, diverse communities that offered Jewish opportunity. For sure, these places were in part comprised of transplanted New Yorkers, but often there were many natives who were born there, grew up there, and had stayed – or left but then came back after their schooling in New York or anywhere else.

The New York area, I’m sure rightfully so, was long ago crowned the center of American Jewish Life, and with that, smaller communities, stylistically different and often having less Jewish “abundance” to offer their residents, received the long-lasting title “out-of-town.” Whether 40 families or even 4000 families, they have not been able to shake it, and many residents of these places remain pleased and proud enough not to want to, though in some more modestly sized communities they still dream of an additional kosher restaurant, or an easier time getting a minyan weekday mornings, not to mention a Jewish high school option for boys or girls, or both.

Actually, although I feel like one, I don’t think I can call myself a native New Yorker. I didn’t grow up in Manhattan or Queens, or in a Flatbush neighborhood with a letter-named street a half a block away. I only got to Teaneck in the mid-70s, and for a couple of years prior to that, home was in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx.

My trek started north of here, out-of-town in a place called Rochester, NY. Up there alongside Lake Ontario. I was born there, lived the first five years of my life there, and after that, our family made a stop in Philadelphia for a few years. My dad was teaching in university, so we got to move around a bit. Each time we changed places, I made new friends. And I helped unpack my toys. Our family’s travel itinerary were summer vacations along the East Coast, no further south than one summer trip to Virginia Beach (Florida was not part of our experience), and we did get to Detroit a couple of times to see cousins. My post-high school year in Israel was my first real time away away. The rest of Jewish America? I knew about it, but it wasn’t familiar to me.

That changed somewhat during college, as I participated as an adviser on some youth programs, and then, exponentially, when I started to travel as one of the Assistant Directors of Admissions at YU to speak to students, their parents, and the Jewish high school faculty about Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. The “Admissions Years” were when I got to know Jewish America. Knowing means appreciating. For three years, I visited the schools, met the families, ate in the restaurants, if they had them, drove the roads and highways, and spoke to community rabbis and school principals. Los Angeles was different than Kansas City, and Seattle was not Chicago.

Those specific cities weren’t present this past Sunday, but a large group of 22 established or “emerging” Jewish communities from across the country did arrive in Manhattan to meet with families, as well as individuals, looking for a new home and job opportunities outside of our area. The OU’s Emerging Jewish Community Fair (this is the second year), which took place June 14th at Lander College for Women in Manhattan, drew more than 1000 people over the course of a full afternoon, and each had a chance to meet with community members, shul rabbis, school principals, and even real estate specialists, to learn about life on the West Coast, down south, or even an hour or two drive from New York.

The motivation for exploring was job opportunity, affordable housing, lower tuition costs, a change of lifestyle, a chance to see and experience a different place, be with different types of people, and feel a more active part of the community.

Amy and Jordan Hiller of North Woodmere had come to the fair for at least some of these reasons. They visited many of the community booths (actually tables), though I first caught up with them as they were in discussion with Rabbi Chaim Silver of B’nai Israel Congregation of Norfolk, VA. According to a medium-sized sign mounted on an easel, you can live in Norfolk for peanuts, and to reinforce that point Rabbi Silver was giving out souvenir sponge peanuts, stress-relievers that you clench in your hand, as he spoke animatedly about the community located in the Ghent neighborhood, and all it has to offer Jewish families; something he personally discovered when he arrived in Norfolk, after spending nearly 10 years in a different climate as Rabbi at the Young Israel of Phoenix.

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Jordan is an attorney and has worked in real estate management, and Amy is a teacher but presently spending time at home with their three children, ages 2 to 7. Both are from the New York area but they don’t feel they have to stay here.

I ask them whose choice it was to come today. Amy points a finger verbally: “Jordan’s always been interested in seeing what’s out there,” she says. Jordan suggests they both have it in them.

He tells about when they first got married: “We took a few road trips. We had opportunity to see some of the Jewish small communities.” He identifies special things in these communities. “It’s nice for kids to grow up out of town… From my experience, the people I’ve met in New York who are from out-of-town and small communities have a different set of values and a different comfort level with themselves and with their Judaism.” This impresses Jordan and he’d like to bring his family a lot closer to the source, wherever that might be on the map. Amy appreciates this, but needs more convincing, for a reason heard so often: “I am very attached to family.”

More than 1000 miles away, but only a number of seconds of carpet walking on this particular afternoon, Rabbi Uri Topolsky stands by the New Orleans booth. He and a number of individuals have come to greet the fair attendees and to speak about the rebirth of the Jewish community as a component of the general rebirth of the New Orleans area after Katrina. Rabbi Topolsky and his wife Dahlia, and their two boys, are recent arrivals in New Orleans, having settled there only two years ago. Before that they spent time in Riverdale, where he was the Associate Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute, working alongside Rabbi Avi Weiss. This relationship, and Rabbi Topolsky receiving his smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an institution known for instilling strong commitments to Jewish activism in its graduates, directed him to an area of the country that still needs lots of help. “My wife and I were looking for a place out of New York. New Orleans is one of the only places you can go right now, where you can reshape the community, rebuild the synagogue, and be a part of an entire city.” After Katrina many of the shul families, who had located elsewhere, initially for temporary shelter, never returned. “We lost about a third of the population… the housing shortage is still here.”

But Rabbi Topolsky, upbeat, sounds some very positive notes: “The Jewish community is very much back on its feet. They’ve done strategic planning, and (something that will certainly peak the attention of ambitious families looking for this type of opportunity) the city is teeming with entrepreneurs.”

At the Detroit table, the communities of Southfield and Oak Park were giving away individual chocolates. I reach into the glass bowl, past the miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and take a miniature Hershey’s Dark Chocolate, and then another. I stop after three, but I continue listening to David Sklar, who together with his wife have come as part of the area’s volunteer team for today’s program. He’s a therapist in private practice; she’s a journalist formerly with the Detroit Free Press and now working on a freelance basis. They joined the Oak Park community 12 years ago, and credit Rabbi Steven Weil, the OU’s incoming Executive Vice President, but then the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park, for enabling their Jewish growth. “We moved because of Rabbi Steve Weil,” says David. “We had just gotten married and decided to notch up our observance. We were very impressed with Rabbi Weil.”

Detroit also has an established yeshiva community along with the more Modern Orthodox one. Its assets include the Akiva Hebrew Day School, a nationally known Vaad Horabonim, and a serious appreciation for Israel. Many community members, says David, choose to make aliyah. “It’s a strong Zionistic community… It’s a nice place to raise a family.”

Still, these days, Detroit might have more chocolate to offer than economic opportunity. The automobile industry is clearly shaking. But David, who’s spent his entire life in town, even if not in the suburbs, feels secure. He sees “a lot of possibilities for Detroit in the future” and believes strongly that there’s going to be a “paradigm shift,” basic attitudinal changes that will probably envelop all communities and not just his. In the immediate, he points out, for potential
newcomers the “housing is dirt cheap.”

Interestingly, Hershey’s chocolate figures into another community’s presentation. Bryan Reid, a physician from Harrisburg, thinks that their Jewish community, with a population of 6000, has become known in part because of travelers making Sukkot visits to Hershey Park, just 20 minutes away. “It’s in our backyard,” he says. It’s also on route to many driving destinations. “Everybody comes through Harrisburg – It’s 1.5 hours to Philly, 1.25 to Baltimore, and 3 hours to New York.”

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Rabbi Akiva Males of Kesher Israel Congregation, with 175 families, echoes that, and calls Harrisburg a “full-service community, close enough to keep in touch…” but with a cost of living that’s a lot lower than other options.

Another Pennsylvania community, but one even closer to New York, is Allentown. Driving time used to be two hours, but when a section of Interstate 78 opened up in the area in 1989, the commute was cut by a half-hour, making it more reasonable for many.

Alan J. Wiener’s family has seen seven generations in Allentown, those before him and also his kids and grandkids, he tells me. Billy Joel’s 1982 hit song, laments the fall of the steel industry in the area (though Levittown, Long Island, where the singer grew up, was the original title and focus – until Joel, stuck on what to say about his hometown, read about Lehigh Valley’s plight), and the theme still bears truth. “Industries have evaporated and there’s no more textile manufacturing,” says Alan, “but medicine is a growth area.” He stresses the community’s involvement with one another – across the religious spectrum. “The school is a community school, the mikvah is a community mikvah… there’s frequent interaction between the synagogues.”

Alan’s own synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel, is looking for a new spiritual leader. Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, who’s been at the shul since 2001, and who offers Torah education online via a couple of original websites, will be leaving (he explains why on his blog, The Rebbetzin’s Husband: “That my family is leaving is largely a function of the absence of a Jewish high school, but for those for whom high school is not yet a factor, Allentown is worth a look, and then some!”). The shul is now interviewing candidates. Other families have also left, but to Israel. “Three or four families are commuting,” Alan explains. “They have their own businesses.” This interesting scenario is a relatively recent phenomenon that’s become available, or necessary, for some aliyah-minded families. Work is here, but the family life they want is found there.

For those who’d like to keep at least part of the New York name on their return address labels, the Upstate communities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy offer solid job markets, ample kosher food, Jewish Day School education, and a good drive time to the larger communities of Boston, New York, and Montreal. In addition, there’s history, 170 years of it.

Albany’s Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob was founded in 1838 and has been under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Bomzer since 1984, nearly a quarter-century. “What’s kept you there?” I ask him as he approaches the table where I’ve been catching up with a college friend, Rabbi Moshe Mirsky from Congregation Beth Israel in Schenectady. He offers an unexpected answer: “A lovefest,” he says. Rabbi Bomzer is a community rabbi, a chaplain, a Jewish educator for all age levels, and a rabbinical personality known well beyond the Upstate NY region.

Corporations such as GE and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices), which is involved in microchip manufacturing, offer thousands of job opportunities in the sciences and engineering. But with new momentum, there’ll be real need for non-technical employees in a whole range of support services too.

For recreation, Rabbi Mirsky suggests the nearby Adirondacks. “Lake George is an hour away. Frum people go there in the summer.”

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Folks looking for other scenery options can consider Denver and its unique mountain vistas. Susie Sharf is originally from Flatbush, but together with her husband, moved to Denver in 2000. She contrasts it with New York, and stresses the benefits of raising kids there, not having to deal with New York driving, and the opportunity to be involved.

Out of town, she says, “you’re on three boards, there’s no sitting back and letting the community run by itself.” Her husband, Joshua, is an MBA grad and made a run for local office. Susie has shunned campaign posters, but is active in fundraising for the school and also involved with the local mikvah. In her professional life, she’s a web designer, and we talk for a brief moment about Flash websites (which Susie doesn’t favor except for headers or select parts of the site). She introduces Rabbi Daniel Alter, a RIETS graduate, and formerly Assistant Rabbi in West Orange, NJ. He’s 10 years in Denver and the founding rabbi of the DAT Minyan, that’s based in the Denver Academy of Torah day school (where Rabbi Alter is also Head of School) and has hopes to build on the same campus. There are “from jeans to streimels in our shul,” says Susie, and even beyond the shul walls, “the denominations all get along.” “For the most part,” she quickly adds.

Susie points out Scott Friedman, a real estate broker with the Herman Group, who’s standing behind a table talking to some prospects. She mentions that families have moved from California, New York, and New Jersey. “You can get a house here for $300,000 – three bedrooms, two baths – and that’s inside the eruv!” She pulls over a one-sided color sell-sheet with six listings. The one on the top right, at $267,500, catches my eye. It’s a turn of the century farmhouse. 1770 sq. ft, with four bedrooms, two baths. Later I read the fine print; “it needs mechanical and cosmetic updates… Priced accordingly.” There are also a couple of Tudors on the page (in the $875,000 range). I’ve always liked Tudors.

Not everyone attending The OU’s Emerging Jewish Communities Fair was there to consider relocation or to offer a nice place to do so. Some were there to assess if this fair would be a right venue for their own community to display at the next time around.

One such person was Rachel Horwitz who’d walked over to the San Francisco table. A young woman in her mid-20s, she’d accepted an assignment from her parents who are active in Wynnewood, PA (just outside the Philadelphia city line) at Congregation Beth Hamedrosh. Their shul is looking to grow, so today Rachel is doing some scouting, and also shares that on a personal level she’s looking for a job. She’s an architect, interested in finding something in city planning, and presently living in Washington Heights (which was not represented at the fair, though it’s probably still “emerging” – at least for the hundreds of recent orthodox college grads that are drawn to the more affordable options in Northern Manhattan compared to the pricier ones found on the Upper West Side).

Rachel is speaking with Jonathan Esensten, a med student and today’s San Francisco rep, who’s happy to tell about the place where he lives and equally glad to have been chosen for “a free trip to New York.”

Rachel moves a table away to Dallas, where David Zoller (originally from New Orleans, and you can hear it a little bit in his voice) is listing statistics. There are 60,000 Jews in Dallas, 200 Modern Orthodox families, 180 yeshiva families, and six kosher restaurants. David works in commercial real estate, he’s been in Dallas since ’89, so he knows the place. “We have 31 flavors of Judaism… we coexist in every beautiful way.”

Rachel listens and watches as David turns on the small monitor to play a school video that was made by one of the junior high school students, an 11 year old. It’s hard to hear (I couldn’t), but his display is an impressive one, though most of the community tables had adequately impressive printed materials. His was not the corrugated board variety of display, rather a sturdy crafted one, the foldable, transportable kind you see at real trade shows.

“Kiruv – What do you do in terms of outreach?” Rachel asks him. She wants to know, because her parents’ shul is looking to get very involved, seeing it as an important synagogue activity and also a chance to strengthen the shul financially, to build a stronger base.

In reality, each one of the many communities represented at the OU’s Emerging Jewish Communities Fair was here to do outreach. They’d come to New York to introduce, educate, inspire – and “at the end of the day,” attract Orthodox families and individuals to a place they believe in. At the same time, they were looking to help themselves become stronger as a community, to find not just new residents to live in their neighborhoods, but hopefully some new and motivated builders to join them as they create an even better home.


Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. He photographs family celebrations and a wide range of corporate, organizational and editorial projects in the US, Israel and other countries. Judah’s photography has appeared in museum exhibits, on the Op-Ed Pages of the NY Times, on the covers of more than 40 novels, and in advertising all over the world. His work can be seen in a frequent email newsletter that circulates to thousands of readers who repeatedly praise the quality of Judah’s photography and writing. To learn more about Judah S. Harris, please visit http://www.judahsharris.com/visit.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.