Larry Blumberg, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, Alabama, is paying Jewish families as much as $50,000 to move to his community and other small towns in the South. As Ben Austen writes in the July-August issue of the Atlantic, Blumberg is the grandchild of immigrants, who wants to help revitalize once-thriving Jewish communities. Dothan once had 577 Jews and Jewish mayor. Now it has 30 and plenty of them are older. There are apparently similar efforts underway in Meridian, Mississippi, not to mention Tulsa and New Orleans.
Who knew? It's kind of an interesting idea for philanthropy. But, as the age old question goes, is it good for the Jews? I think the answer is yes. As Jack Wertheimer pointed out in Commentary a few months ago, it is very very expensive to live a Jewish life in any major metropolitan area. With the kosher food, the Jewish schools, the summer camps, the synagogue membership, all amounting to tens of thousands of dollars in extra costs, plenty of Jews will probably soon decide it's not worth it.
Wertheimer suggests that Jewish philanthropists ought to step up. "Most federations of Jewish philanthropy have neither the resources nor the will to make affordability a priority.... The prevailing attitude of too many in positions of authority is that affordability is a private matter." One way to put a dent in this problem is to try to build strong Jewish communities in more affordable areas of the country. (I recently paid a visit to Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Jewish professor who was my host had made a great life for himself there. He could afford the synagogue membership and Hebrew school easily and just about anything else he wanted. Admittedly I didn't see much in the way of kosher food or a Jewish day school, but all he needs is a critical mass.) Moving to more affordable areas of the country might even encourage Jews to have more children.
Wertheimer's article has sparked a lot of discussion in the Jewish community about whether giving money to middle-class families for private Jewish education and synagogue membership should be prioritized over other forms of giving that seem more pressing--cancer research, soup kitchens for the homeless, etc. etc.
And maybe this will always be a question for philanthropists, but for those interested in helping the Jewish community thrive, check out Austen's article.