Dothan initiative draws national attention

An initiative to bring Jews to Dothan became a media sensation in early September.

In June, Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan started advertising in a handful of Jewish newspapers across the country, touting an incentive package of up to $50,000 for up to 20 Jewish families willing to become part of the Dothan Jewish community for at least five years.

The first wave of publicity garnered 20 inquiries, but as of yet, no moving trucks have arrived.

Then the Associated Press ran a story on Sept. 8, and all of a sudden, Dothan is on the Jewish map.

Hundreds of newspapers have run the story, and in the first few days, the organization’s website has logged 150,000 hits and there have been about 500 inquiries from across the country. Over 100 have filled out a form on the website, seeking more information.

Larry Blumberg, who started the initiative, said he wants to see more young people for the community’s religious school, and newcomers to “help in the way of trying to create more of a family-type atmosphere in our temple.”

Temple Emanu-El has lost about half of its families in the last four decades, a trend that is common in small Jewish communities throughout the South.

Stuart Rockoff, historian at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, said the Jewish population of the South is increasing, to just under 400,000, but primarily in larger communities.

Smaller communities have shrunk as children moved to larger communities after college, not returning to their hometowns.

In places like Clarksdale, Miss., Demopolis and Jasper, Ala., congregations have closed in the last couple of decades.

Blumberg does not want to see that happen in Dothan.

The initiative touts Dothan’s quality of life, from its reasonable cost of living to its proximity to Florida’s beaches.

The lack of traffic is also seen as a drawing card, as is the location of a Troy University campus and nearby Fort Rucker.

Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith, who moved to Dothan last year to become Emanu-El’s rabbi, said people in the Northeast have a “really warped perception” of the South. Even she did not know what to expect when she moved there.

The perception is wrong, she said. “The South is a wonderful place to be. The people are warm and friendly. There’s very little traffic. And best of all, there’s no snow.”

The Jewish community’s size has been a source of contention before. About seven years ago, then-Emanu-El Rabbi Larry Mahrer vigorously protested the city’s first-time exclusion from the American Jewish Yearbook, which lists all Jewish communities of more than 100.

Promotions to attract Jewish residents are not unusual, but the scope of Dothan’s incentives is larger than most.

New Orleans is offering a package of incentives to Jewish newcomers in an attempt to reach pre-Katrina numbers. Birmingham has launched a “You Belong in Birmingham” initiative, and Savannah is also advertising for newcomers.

In the early 1990s, members of Ohel Jacob, the now-defunct Orthodox congregation in Meridian, advertised nationally seeking to boost numbers to at least a minyan.

The Dothan incentives include grants for resettlement of up to $7500, $7500 for housing, $1000 for Emanu-El membership, $15,000 for repaying outstanding educational loans, $15,000 for small business seed money, $7500 for childrens’ private education, and $7500 for other financial obligations.

Applicants have to pass background and credit checks, submit written personal and rabbinic references, host an in-home visit where they live now, and travel to Dothan to meet the community.

There is no automatic entitlement to the incentives, they will be evaluated on a case by case basis.

Jewish Community Services was formed last year as an independent organization under the auspices of Temple Emanu-El. Robert Goldsmith, husband of Rabbi Goldsmith, is the executive director.

Families that stay in Dothan for five years after moving through the initiative and become active in Emanu-El do not have to repay the grant.

The Dothan Jewish community is part of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, based in Montgomery, and has close interfaith ties with local churches.