Linden, Parsippany, and Springfield all made the cut. They are among 36 Jewish communities around the nation selected to be featured at the Orthodox Union’s third Emerging Communities Home and Job Fair, on Sunday, March 27, at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan.
This year marks the first that New Jersey communities will be featured at the fair. The event is expected to attract up to 1,000 people. (The last fair, in 2009, featured 22 communities and attracted over 1,000 people.)
The event was created to encourage residents from the New York City area to consider relocating to smaller communities with a high quality of observant Jewish life in a more affordable setting. Towns nominate themselves through an extensive application process through which they must demonstrate that they offer all the resources expected of a Jewish community.
For Orthodox families, that means a synagogue, a ritual bath, kosher food, and access to yeshiva schooling for their children, among other things.
“Our goal is to let people know there is vibrant Jewish life outside the New York area, and that Judaism is alive and well in places like Southfield, Mich., and Phoenix, Ariz.,” said Frank Buchweitz, national director of community services and special projects with the New York-based Orthodox Union. “In many cases housing outside the New York area may be more affordable, and the sense of community may be warmer or closer-knit. Sometimes people feel they have the opportunity to have a real say in smaller communities,” he told NJJN.
Congregation Israel, the Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, has the most tangible plan to attract members. It wants to bring 27 new couples to the town in the next four years with financial incentives, including a $500 per month stipend for rentals for some couples and up to $20,000 toward a down payment on a home for others. The highest incentives will occur in the earliest years. “We feel we can offer an alternative to the overcrowded Bergen County neighborhoods,” wrote synagogue member Miryam Smilow in an e-mail conversation. The synagogue, with a membership of about 150 families, offers a mikva in town that opened in 2008, multiple daily services, proximity to day schools, and commuter access to New York City. Among the members, there are about 15 families headed by under 35-year-olds.
“Springfield is a community that is warm, tight-knit, with an out-of-town feeling but still 35 minutes from New York City,” said member Ben Hoffer, 29, who moved to the town in 2007. “You can commute to the city, come home, and hear the birds chirping. It’s a safe neighborhood. And the cost of living is cheap compared to communities like Teaneck.” The Orthodox community is led by Rabbi Chaim Marcus. There are also Reform and Conservative synagogues in the town. Congregation Israel, originally part of the Jewish community of Newark, moved to Springfield in the 1970s. In advance of the fair, the synagogue will hold its second annual prospective members’ Shabbaton, Friday-Saturday, March 4-5.
‘All about Shabbos’
Congregation Shaya Ahavath Torah in Parsippany will also be at the fair. Led by Chabad-affiliated Rabbi Sholom Lubin, the Modern Orthodox synagogue was founded in 1975 by a group that broke away from a nearby Conservative synagogue. It currently has about 25 member families, and is seeking new members of all ages.
“We’re all about Shabbos,” said member Naomi Rotter, who is spearheading the effort to attract new members. Although there is not a lot of infrastructure for Orthodox Jews in Parsippany, Rotter pointed out that “everything is close to us if not right near us.” A glatt kosher food counter opened recently at the local ShopRite, and there’s a mikva in Morristown and another in nearby Rockaway. Younger families organize to carpool their kids to yeshivot in Essex and Bergen counties. Mostly, Rotter said, “this is the warmest, most welcoming kehilla I’ve ever been in. There’s something special about our congregation that makes people feel very quickly that this is a place where they can belong.”
Congregants are unfazed by their rabbi’s Chabad affiliation, perhaps because of the general approach of the community. “We take each person as an individual and get past the way a person dresses or the labels we attach to them,” said Rotter. “It’s an approach we need to take with everyone.” There is no daily minyan, but services are held every Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and holiday. “Parsippany is a great place to live, Morris County is a great place to work, and Shaya Ahavath Torah is a great place to daven. Our motto is ‘Live, work, pray,’” said Rotter.
‘A comfortable life’
Linden’s Congregation Anshe Chesed celebrated its 95th anniversary in 2009. Like Congregation Israel, it is experiencing something of a rebirth thanks to its young new rabbi, Joshua Hess, who came to the synagogue in 2009. Although its membership has dropped from a peak of 289 in the 1960s to about 115 today, it counts about 20 young families among those members, with five prospective young families currently exploring the possibility of joining. “We are now seeing a rejuvenation of this community. We are dedicated to bringing the shul back to its heyday,” said Hess.
He pitched his community to the OU as a good choice for people looking for an aesthetically pleasing place to live with easy access into New York via public transportation or highways, with affordable housing and Jewish amenities. “For people on a tight budget who spend a lot of money on education, food, and other Jewish imperatives and who need a place to get all of that — and not feel strapped financially or like they are depleting their savings — this community is a great choice.
“What we offer,” said Hess, “is that you can live a life that is fulfilling spiritually and socially, and also live a comfortable life financially.” The synagogue is located in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Linden, and currently uses the services of the mikva in nearby Elizabeth. It is one of three Orthodox communities in Union County. The others are Elizabeth/Hillside and Springfield.
This year’s fair will also feature two other Orthodox communities in New Jersey: Cherry Hill and Long Branch/Elberon.
As always, the fair will feature employment information as well as residential information. While communities are not expected to guarantee employment, representatives are expected to be knowledgeable enough to help guide job seekers.
Jill Garbi contributed to this article.