New Virtual Platform Facilitated Unprecedented International Participation
For the first time in its 14-year history, the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Community Home Relocation Fair was held virtually in mid-February, enabling attendees worldwide to take part. Even more remarkable however, was that participants joined from 35 U.S. states and 18 countries including Austria, Chile, Germany, Hong Kong, Mexico, Nigeria and Venezuela.
“It was so exciting to see registrations pouring in from so many areas of the world,” says Rebbetzin Judi Steinig, OU’s senior director of Community Projects & Partnerships who oversees the event. “Past on-site fairs were held in New York City and attracted people from the New York Metropolitan area – going virtual made the fair accessible to so many who want to relocate. The fair accommodated people’s need for information and resources.”
The event helps Orthodox Jewish communities to grow, says Steinig; and for those considering relocation, the fair highlights affordable geographic alternatives that offer the amenities of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and an enhanced quality of life.
More than 2,500 attendees and exhibitors converged online Feb. 13 to learn about and showcase 60-plus Orthodox Jewish communities from 22 states and Israel. This year’s fair was the largest to date and featured 17 new communities.
Simon Springer served as a community recruiter at the fair on behalf of the nonprofit organization Move to Jewish South Bend, in Indiana. With an Orthodox population of approximately 140 families, the group has been represented at the event since its inception; its representatives say it’s an extremely valuable medium to promote the opportunities, facilities and services available to frum families considering relocation to the Midwest.
Springer said he particularly appreciated that the virtual platform facilitated participation beyond the New York Tri-state region.
“People came to talk to me from the New York area, but the vast majority actually came from outside,” he says. “We had some attendees at our booth from Canada, some from Israel and from England. The OU Community Fair is such an important part of South Bend’s community growth. It allows us to showcase our community and enables us to bring in active members that help build and strengthen our town.”
Rabbi Yonah Gross of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh is part of a team that’s been exhibiting the community of Penn Wynne, Philadelphia at the fair for a number of years. He, too, appreciated the chance to connect with more people than ever before, thanks to the fair’s online format.
“A benefit was just to be able to reach more people that day,” says Rabbi Gross. “Last week, I had conversations with someone from Israel who wouldn’t have been able to attend the fair in person but had interest in our community.”
One of the event’s major sponsors was Nefesh B’Nefesh, which offered various sessions and showcased the region of Gush Etzion for the first time, including the communities of Neve Daniel, Elazar, Alon Shvut, Bat Ayin, Tekoah, Nokdim and Ma’ale Amos.
New Yorker Shelly Saposnik found the Nefesh B’Nefesh presentations particularly insightful. Although retired from her career as a specialized paralegal for a major Manhattan law firm, Saposnik still works as an adjunct professor teaching English literature and composition and is a published poet. She attended the fair to explore communities outside of New York City.
“Nefesh B’ Nefesh presented a comprehensive review of the different neighborhoods in Gush Etzion,” she says. “I was surprised to learn that there was an artsy community in the region, as well as other places throughout Israel. I thought the very idea of a virtual fair was an excellent one and being able to speak to people from the community of interest was truly helpful.”
The fair spanned 10 hours, and visitors could log in and out as they pleased. Attendees entered an eye-catching virtual venue with moving escalators, a lobby with street signs linking to an expo hall, and a virtual auditorium where 11 sessions were held.
Susan Weiss of Far Rockaway attended the fair to explore housing options in the states both for herself and her married daughter. An industrial psychologist and executive coach, Weiss was intrigued to learn about burgeoning communities in places such as Charleston, S.C. and Fairfax, Va., where Jewish life is thriving. She was also highly impressed with the beauty of the online platform.
“The OU couldn’t have done a better job of making a virtual event more personalized,” says Weiss. “They made it so beautiful. When you ‘walked in’ to the event and entered the auditorium, you were greeted by a welcome message, and everything was divided by location. Information was easy to find, and you were even able to talk to someone on the spot or set up a future meeting. It was really well laid out. I thought it was amazing.”
In addition to enabling international participation, the fair’s virtual platform freed attendees and exhibitors from wearing masks, social distancing and having to arrange and pay for childcare. It also offered discretion for those wishing to discuss private issues, such as a child’s special needs or recent unemployment.
With five kids under age 6, Devorah and Nachum (last name omitted for privacy concerns) of Edison, N.J. were unable to attend the fair in previous years because of their busy schedules. This year’s virtual platform was ideal for the couple, who are in their early 30. They logged in from home while their children played.
“My husband and I are both from ‘out of town’ and we want to contribute to a younger community,” says Devorah. “We love the broad diversity and open-mindedness of so many of the communities we saw at the OU Fair.”
Devorah and Nachum were very impressed with many of the community presentations and say they’re considering moving to Atlanta in the near future.
“At one point a representative from Atlanta just showed up on our screen, and we talked to him for about 15 minutes and he connected us with many people, which was super helpful,” says Devorah. “The community’s follow-up has been excellent too. We’ve heard from realtors and a school principal already.”
Amanda Aron Chimanovitch and her husband recently emigrated to Vancouver, B.C. from Brazil, in search of a better and safer place to raise their children. The couple was looking for a solid Jewish community, with shuls and a day school that fit their hashkafa, or Orthodox perspective, and are thrilled with their community — so much so that Amanda serves as the community liaison for Torah West, a new organization aimed at helping Orthodox families move to Vancouver. Amanda was thrilled to discover the fair on the OU webpage.
“Being a newcomer myself, I’m aware of how hard moving to a new country can be,” she says. “I attended the fair to expand my network, get to know other Jews who do the same thing as me, and also learn from them. I enjoyed the fair because I had the opportunity to learn about so many places without having to leave my home. Next year, I hope to participate as an exhibitor.”
For those who missed the fair, or had difficulty navigating the virtual platform, there’s good news: all sessions will be available on demand on the ou.org/fair website, which also houses updated pages for each community that exhibited at the event. Community representatives will also be reaching out to those who expressed interest prior to the event.
The OU Community Guide is also still available in both hard copy and PDF formats. To date, several hundred people have ordered the 64-page color booklet, which profiles all of the 2022 communities and sponsors that participated. At $15 a copy (www.ou.org/fair), the guide is an invaluable resource for anyone considering relocation.
“The OU is proud to play a major role in facilitating relocation and community growth,” says Steinig. “We’re happy to connect people who are looking to move and communities seeking to grow. The success of our communities is our success as well.”
For more information about the communities that exhibited at the fair and to order the 2022 Orthodox Jewish Community Guide, please visit www.ou.org/fair
About OU’s Department of Community Projects & Partnerships
OU’s Department of Community Projects & Partnerships enhances Jewish communal life on a national scale by strengthening community leaders, organizations, and infrastructure and collaborating and connecting with Jewish lay leaders and industry experts.