By Harriet P. Gross
When my father, of blessed memory, gave up his medical practice, he received an invitation from someone representing a small Upper Michigan town that hoped to attract a full-time physician. The caller offered a number of attractive perks and said the need was especially great during the summer, when lots of non-locals arrived with their rifles for the hunting season.
“What do they shoot?” Dad asked.
“Mostly each other,” the caller replied. “That’s why we need a doctor!”
We did not relocate to the Iron Mountain area, but I thought about this when I read a recent article in our Dallas daily about a small southern town that uses similar methods to recruit new residents. The need in Dothan, Ala., is also specialized, but very different: Its Jewish population is seeking Jews from other places to move there and live among them.
Larry Blumberg, a successful businessman in Dothan, has pledged $1 million to pay all moving expenses for Jewish families who will come. It’s a personal matter to him. Attrition is wiping out his synagogue, and he doesn’t want to see it die.
Besides my father’s story, this brings to mind a couple of other friends and their experiences. One is Sherry Zander, who for years has been traveling the country, taking pictures and gathering the histories of former synagogues. These houses of worship once nurtured Jews who first made their livings as itinerant peddlers, then built stores in small towns and finally moved off to larger population centers. “I brake for synagogues,” Sherry has said. Many of these once-sacred buildings still stand, now serving other, mainly secular, purposes; Jefferson, Texas, for example, has turned its Hebrew Sinai Temple into a community theater.
Then there is Elaine Fantle Shimberg. Her 2011 memoir, “Growing Up Jewish in Small Town America,” hasn’t won any prizes as a piece of writing, but it provides invaluable documentation of a lifestyle that used to be much more common than it is today. Elaine’s birth in 1937 increased the Jewish population to 16 in Yankton, S.D. The Fantles moved three years later to Fort Dodge, Iowa, raising the number of Jewish families there to 32 among the town’s 27,000 residents.
This is the same kind of population “balance” that has today’s small-town Jewish synagogues, particularly those in America’s South, fighting for their lives. But businessman Blumberg’s affection for his hometown’s Temple Emanu-El — plus his ability and desire to express his love with a hefty financial investment — have made Dothan the poster child for what might be done to stop or, perhaps, even reverse the trend.
So far, according to the Associated Press report, six young families have taken up Blumberg’s offer of moving assistance, boosting the Jewish population in Dothan to 18. Their arrival has sparked new life in the congregation and, quite literally, rejuvenated its religious school. And more families, seeing what’s happening there, are applying for assistance so they can become part of the exciting growth.
Blumberg says, “The injection of this new blood has really been helpful and refreshing. I think the program has created a lot of buzz both in our local community and throughout the Jewish community at large.”
That “buzz” is affirmed by Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith, spiritual leader of Dothan’s temple, who thinks its success may allay the fears of big city Jews facing job transfers to the South. Now, Rabbi Goldsmith noted, they’ll be able to say, “Hey, you know they’ve got this vibrant community in Dothan, and I guess maybe Mississippi can’t be so bad.”
Other small-town congregations could surely follow their lead. But Stuart Rockoff, with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., has seen a number of synagogues losing the battle for survival. At least two, both in Alabama, have already succumbed to the fate that Dothan’s temple is avoiding. “Dothan is bucking that trend,” Rockoff says in the article.
But how will those similarly shrinking synagogues each acquire a million dollars to do the same?