Religion July/August 2010

A Promising Land

Small towns in the South are looking for a few good Jewish families.

Miller Mobley/Redux

Of the 140 houses of worship in Dothan, Alabama—a city of 68,000 residents and the self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World”—just one is a synagogue. Members of that 80-year-old synagogue, the only one in 15 counties, are now offering as much as $50,000 to Jewish families willing to move to Dothan and join their religious ranks. Three couples have already taken the money and relocated. Many others are interested but remain wary about Alabama and the Deep South. “I tell them there’s running water, that we wear shoes, have a Starbucks. There have never been any swastikas on the temple door,” Rob Goldsmith, the director of the resettlement program and the husband of Temple Emanu-El’s new rabbi, told me. “George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door was 50 years ago. Get over it.”

Today, some 1.1 million Jews live in the South, including 655,000 in Florida—more than at any other time in the nation’s history. Atlanta’s Jewish population has increased fourfold since 1980. But small-town congregations, unlike those in large southern cities, have seen their numbers dwindle, as older generations have died off or joined children who left for college and never returned.

According to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, an organization based in Jackson, Mississippi, that assists synagogues across the South, at least 29 southern synagogues have shut their doors in the past two decades. Forty years ago in Dothan, 110 families were affiliated with Temple Emanu-El; at the start of this century that number had fallen to 43.

Larry Blumberg, a Temple Emanu-El member who develops and runs hotels in several southern states, is bankrolling the effort to halt this erosion, with hopes of luring 20 families over five years. Blumberg’s grandfather arrived in Dothan in the 1890s, having journeyed from Lithuania via Ellis Island. He first traveled from farm to farm with a pack on his back, selling clothes and housewares, and eventually opened a shop on Dothan’s Main Street that grew into a two-story department store with an escalator. At mid-century, Jews owned many of the retail businesses in downtown Dothan and in other southern towns. But the arrival of shopping malls, better highways, and big-box stores rendered the small-town retailer obsolete.

A few other southern congregations have attempted their own versions of Dothan’s “Jewish stimulus package,” as Goldsmith calls it. New Orleans offered a $15,000 loan to lure Jews back after Hurricane Katrina. The mission of Grow Jewish Tulsa is both to retain and to increase its Jewish numbers; the group offers a variety of services, including contacts at the city’s 35 or so Jewish-owned businesses. And Meridian, Mississippi, has begun a program modeled directly on Dothan’s—the city, which once had a population of 577 Jews, and even a Jewish mayor, is down to about 30, among them only two families with children. When I asked Marc Fisher, who runs the relocation effort there, how he’d characterize his synagogue’s congregation, he said, “Elderly. But also looking for growth.”

One advantage Dothan has over a city like Meridian—where a synagogue was bombed in 1968—is that it has no history of overt anti-Semitism. Larry Blumberg remembers a time during his childhood, in the 1960s, when all public schools were closed for the Jewish High Holidays, and a local Jewish businessman was president of Dothan’s tony country club. Dothan has other selling points as well. It’s home to many of the region’s hospitals, hotels, and banks, and nearby farms produce about half the country’s peanuts. People there are also quick to mention that the beaches of Panama City, Florida, are a mere 81 miles away.

Since launching two years ago, Dothan’s relocation project has received 600,000 hits on its Web site. Some people write in that they’re not Jewish but for $50,000 will convert; Orthodox Jews usually cease contact upon learning of the reform synagogue’s female rabbi; one Jewish family said it was living out of a station wagon, can you help? But as a longtime Jewish resident of Dothan told me about the venture, “We don’t take ’em to raise, as we say in the South. Fifty thousand dollars doesn’t go very far.”

The Jews of Dothan make it clear to prospective residents that the city has a predominantly Christian culture. If families decide to relocate, they will likely be the only Jews on their block, and their children will be the only Jews in their classes. Politically, too, the leanings of Dothan Jews mostly reflect those of the larger culture.

Stephanie Butler, who moved to Dothan through the relocation program, said, “Conservative family values are our values, even if people think of them generally as Christian values.” Like others who have accepted the incentive dollars or are close to doing so, she and her husband were looking for a slower pace of life, and a safer place to raise their children.

Any slights that occur, I was told, result not from malice but from a lack of awareness. Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith described a visitor to Temple Emanu-El who asked where the sacrifices were held. She said her neighbors, black and white, are eager to learn about Judaism, even if that interest stems largely from a desire to better know the “true” Jesus through his Jewish roots.

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Ben Austen is a contributing editor at Harper’s.

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