I’m a city girl. I live on one of the lower floors of a twenty one story high-rise. My urban home is graced with great landscaping, pleasant playgrounds and even some cheerfully noisy birds that sing outside my window in the early morning. But, hey, this is still Lower Manhattan and for all I know some of those birds are sporting miscellaneous earrings and a few decorative tattoos. I was ready for an infusion of suburbia.
So one Sunday a few weeks back I headed over to the Community Fair the OU was sponsoring. My experiences at trade shows have always been positive. You learn about places and things you’ve never heard of. You wander around aisles of displays and convince yourself you’re in some foreign bazaar. And, of course, there are always free samples of something to take home. (Free time shares, anyone?!)
The idea of the OU Community Fair was to promote Jewish communities outside of the tri-state area and help make matches between those looking for an affordable community and those looking for congregants. Though I was not looking to move in the near future, I was interested in seeing what kind of Jewish action was going on outside of New York.
The Fair was held in a spacious room at Touro College’s uptown campus. There was a lot of energy in the room as I wandered past the tables. Each was laden with brochures and pamphlets and the inevitable laptop, flashing pictures of happy families, very clean children and gleaming synagogues. Every table had a few representatives and the mood was upbeat and focused. These were communities looking for Jewish families, and these were Jewish families looking for community. And matchmaking is a serious business.
There was a real mix of people milling around coming from all over the New York area. Most were young couples trying to find a place to start out and grow; and some were older. What they all had in common was an open mind. They were out shopping, also a serious business.
I met an older woman who told me she was retired.
“What are you looking for?”
“Oh, I don’t really know. Something I can afford, I guess.”
I found one young couple stranded in middle of the room looking lost.
“Hi. Are you looking for a place to live or are you here representing a community?”
“We’re looking,” the husband answered.
“Do you think you’ll find anything or are you…?”
“…overwhelmed!” His wife finished for me. “They all sound the same on paper.”
I wished them well and went to do some shopping of my own. Where to go first? There were cities that I’ve always wanted to visit – Phoenix, AZ, Atlanta, GA, San Francisco, CA, Houston and Dallas, TX. Then there were places that I would never have thought to see, like Southfield, MI, Allentown, PA and Richmond, VA.
At my first stop, Rabbi Winter of Chesterfield, MO stated that Chesterfield was “the best place in America” and had “everything you need to bring up kids in the Torah way.” Next door, Isaac Entin of Phoenix, Arizona excused his table’s generic look. “Fire regulations prohibit barbecuing indoors!” He invited everyone to Arizona for a real barbeque and I thought I just might take him up on it. Others might take him up on the fact that his state is offering a tuition tax credit that could knock 30%-70% off of a family’s Yeshiva tuition bill. It’s arguable which the hotter draw in Arizona really is.
When I met Rabbi Bomzer, representing upstate N.Y. (Troy, Schenectady & Albany), he introduced me to his secret weapon, Ken Green. Mr. Green has been hard at work trying to lure AMD, a semiconductor company, into the region. He’s succeeded and hopes to see 5000 new jobs available in the area. Jobs are paramount. It’s the first thing people at the Fair were looking for and the communities present were prepared.
Columbus, Ohio was happy to talk about its warm and welcoming community, but they were also ready for business.
“It’s all about follow up,” they told me. They were accepting resumes and expected to draw serious inquiries at the Fair.
“What do people ask you about?”
“Jobs. People want to find work. After that it’s housing, schools and then, maybe food.”
Food is good. I was magnetically drawn to the table representing Harrisburg Pa. All the space on their table that wasn’t covered with brochures and reading material was covered with Hershey bars. I felt very much at home just staring at the chocolates, but speaking to Tammy Reid locked it up. She extolled the warmth and friendliness of Harrisburg. Not knowing your neighbors “just doesn’t happen here.” Another selling point: close proximity to NY means you can easily go out to dinner in both New York and Baltimore.
Harrisburg’s compatriots from Allentown, Pa were set up across the room. They claimed to be “better than everybody else! We even have the best tee-shirts, to prove it!” they pointed to their colorful tee shirts emblazoned with ‘Allentown’. Their pitch: it’s a doable commute from Allentown to New York. “Plenty of people do a longer commute from their homes on Long Island to their jobs in New York.”
Dallas, Texas was even more serious that Harrisburg. David Zollev told me, “We’re an exciting, emerging community of 60,000 Jews.” Dallas has six Orthodox Shuls, three Chabads and a Modern Orthodox Kollel. With two Eruvim and six kosher restaurants; including the best Kosher Indian restaurant in the region (“When you walk in, all you see are kippot and Indians.”) they can really hold their own. Mr. Zollev invited me to publicize the soon-to-be-launched website movetodallas.org. He welcomes everyone to consider relocating to Dallas and to feel free to use whatever they need from Dallas’s website to aid in their own community growth. “We want to build and support Klal Yisrael everywhere. Jews have to stick together and support one another.”
Chany and David Fleischhacker of Memphis Tenn. were satisfied expatriates from Queens. “We believe in Memphis. It’s a whole different way of life. More laid back. Great for the kids. If you can’t live in Israel, Memphis is the place to be.”
I checked out the map posted at the display for Stamford Conn. Michael Feldstein clued me in, “Stamford suffers from an identity crisis. People think we’re far away,” he said, gesturing to the map. “We’re only forty-five minutes from Manhattan and thirty-five from Riverdale. Stamford is a pretty, charming place where you feel far away from the city – but you’re not.” Stamford’s residents plan to follow up on the Community Fair by hosting a Shabbaton so people can get a feel for what Stamford is about. “We’re trying to create a buzz.”
There was plenty of buzz in the room; when I left the Stamford display, I heard someone announcing that Richmond, Virginia was offering free tuition for the year to anyone signing up at the Fair. That’s quite a giveaway. It might even beat the free chocolates.
Making my way out of the Fair I met a young woman, baby in tow, and asked my question for the last time that day.
“So, what are you looking for?”
“We live in Queens now and we’re looking for a mid-sized city…somewhere where we can make a difference…I mean in the Jewish community.”
That was what it was all about. Making a difference. Because when you’re a Jew a new home is not just based on real estate values or location. A Jewish home needs to be where you can contribute; where you can give and grow and make a difference.
Baila Rosenbaum is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan. Her work has been published by Targum Press, Judaica Press, in Mishpacha Magazine and Horizons.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.