DOTHAN, Ala. – Five years ago, a Jewish businessman who was worried that his synagogue was dying put up $1 million to fund a program to recruit fellow Jews to move to a corner of the Deep South best known for peanuts.
Alabama might not be the promised land, but the plan worked.
The red-brick synagogue now has religion classes full of children, and there’s a temple bowling team starting. Six new Jewish families with 18 people who used to live in New York, Florida and other states call Dothan their home. Their arrival helped to double the size of worship services, and more families are applying for the assistance.
Larry Blumberg smiles when he talks about what has grown in the few years since he hatched the idea to pay moving expenses for families relocating to the area.
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“The injection of this new blood has really been helpful and refreshing,” said Blumberg. “I think the program has created a lot of buzz and attention both in our local community and throughout the Jewish community at large.”
Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith, who moved from Connecticut to Alabama to lead the reform Temple Emanu-El about a year before the program began, thinks Blumberg’s strategy could become a blueprint for other small-town Jewish congregations fighting to stay alive.
“I would hope that it does help people, you know, if they realize they need to be transferred to Louisiana or Mississippi that they won’t be scared,” said Goldsmith. “They'll say, ‘Hey, you know they’ve got this vibrant community in Dothan, and I guess maybe Mississippi can’t be so bad.’”
Bucking the trend
Other small-town Jewish congregations could certainly use the help, according to Stuart Rockoff of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss.
While Jewish populations are booming in cities including Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; and Charlotte, N.C., he said, synagogues are fighting for life in many small towns across the South. Congregations shut down in recent years in at least two other Alabama cities, Rockoff said.
“Dothan is bucking that trend,” Rockoff said. The institute is helping promote Southern Judaism by raising funds in places including New York and California to support Deep South congregations, he said.
Temple Emanu-El was just another congregation on the critical list a few years ago.
Goldsmith would typically see about 15 people, most with gray hair, when she looked across the pews during worship services when she arrived in 2007. Children’s classes were small or worse, and the once-thriving congregation formed in 1929 seemed to be in a downward spiral because many young Jewish people were leaving town for larger cities like Atlanta or Birmingham after college.
Blumberg, who owns a chain of hotels, came up with a plan: Offer Jewish families $50,000 in relocation assistance in exchange for pulling up roots, moving to Dothan, getting involved at Temple Emanu-El and remaining at least five years.
With leadership from Rob Goldsmith, the rabbi’s husband and executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, the program developed applications and a process for screening applicants. It purchased advertisements in Jewish newspapers in cities including Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C.
Calls and applications began coming as word spread through ads, friends and news stories about the program. The most serious candidates got visits from Rob Goldsmith and were brought to Dothan, a city of 65,000 people that is in a part of the state known for peanut production and the annual National Peanut Festival.
Home to a new osteopathic school and a medical hub for southeast Alabama, Dothan calls itself the “Circle City” because it has one of the few complete perimeter roads in the state. The city is about 90 miles from the Gulf Coast, making it a familiar drive-through spot for beach-bound tourists.
Stephanie Butler, a Jew who grew up in Birmingham but was living in Florida, didn’t believe the program even existed when a friend who attended the University of Alabama mentioned seeing a news story about it a few years ago.
“He came over to watch a (football) game with us, an Alabama game, and he said, ‘Did you hear about them relocating Jews to Alabama?’” Butler said. “I said, ‘You’re full of it, you’re totally full of it.’”
The friend was correct and Butler, husband Kevin Butler and their sons, 7-year-old Isaac and 5-year-old Eli, now live in Dothan after receiving the financial aid and moving to Dothan. Butler, who teaches high school about 45 minutes away in Chipley, Fla., said she and her family never could have moved without the assistance.
“We weren’t in a position to pick up and move ourselves anywhere, so that had almost everything to do with it,” she said. “(But) we wouldn’t have come if we had thought Dothan was awful. It’s no good to have someone pay to move you someplace that you’re going to hate.”
Other families have moved to Dothan from New York, Illinois, Georgia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, said Rob Goldsmith. As many as 30 people attend worship now, the rabbi said, or about twice as many as before.
Yet the program hasn’t been a total success. The first family that relocated to Dothan in early 2009 had to leave town because of job scarcities during the recession, said Goldsmith, and the economic downturn slowed interest in the program to a trickle.
But inquiries picked up again as the economy improved, he said, and four or five more families are deep into the screening process now and could soon be moving.
The rabbi hopes the people keep coming.
“Having younger families, having more kids, has made a tremendous, a tremendous difference,” Lynne Goldsmith said.