By Symi Rom-Rymer
Can you put a price on living in a Jewish community? Larry Blumberg of Dothan, Alabama hopes you can. Blumberg, a local businessman, is offering $50,000 to any Jewish family willing to settle in Dothan and grow the local community. Like the Jewish experience in many small southern towns, Dothan’s Jewish community shrunk considerably since the 1970s when mom-and-pop stores–once the economic engines of the small Southern Jewish communities—were put out of business by retail giants. But today, the Jews of Dothan are fighting back.
As a recent Atlantic article explains, Dothan must first break through the stereotypes that come with a small town in 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,” said Rob Goldsmith, the director of the resettlement program and the husband of the town’s only Rabbi. “George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door was 50 years ago. Get over it.” Of course, the fact that the Rabbi is a woman is also a testament to how things have changed.
There is also the religious imbalance. In the 1960s, the Jewish community in Dothan was significant enough that the public schools closed for the High Holidays. But today, Temple Emanu-El is the only synagogue in a city that boasts 140 houses of worship. It is likely that the new families will “be the only Jews on their block and their children will be the only Jews in their classes.”
Life in a small town as a member of a minority group may seem overwhelming. But it also is an exciting opportunity to reintroduce largely Christian communities, such as that of Dothan, to what it means to be Jewish today. As Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith of Emanu-El points out in the article, many of her neighbors are familiar with Judaism only through the lens of Christianity. By living there, however, by becoming a greater part of the social fabric, Jews can greatly influence how their neighbors see them, and by extension, all of Jewish religious and secular life. Conversely, Christianity remains an unknown quantity to many Jews. By living together in such close proximity; it could also encourage those within the Jewish community to see beyond their preconceptions of Christian practices.
It may cost $50,000 per family to attract more Jews to Dothan. But forging lifelong interfaith bonds is priceless.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.