New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 19, 2012
When the Soloveichiks moved to New York City in June, they passed over neighborhoods overflowing with kosher restaurants and yeshivas to settle in a barren stretch of the Bronx with a dwindling Orthodox Jewish population.
A synagogue in Pelham Parkway offered to pay them $625 a month — for a total of $22,500 over three years — just to live and worship among its members. The money helps cover the family's $1,750 monthly rent; if they had chosen to buy, they would have received a lump sum of $40,000.
"Pelham Parkway is most certainly not on the map," said Yakira Soloveichik, 38, a nurse, who relocated from Chicago with her husband and four young children. "You have to make it worth coming here. Money is a great way to pull people in."
If religion is good for the soul, keeping Sabbath has never been better for the bottom line.
Many synagogues and other Jewish organizations have dangled lucrative incentives in recent years to attract new members to their graying or shrinking communities around the nation. Advertised in Jewish publications or through word of mouth, these relocation bonuses have included partial down payments on new homes, discounted yeshiva tuitions, repayment of student loans and even free memberships to the Jewish dating website JDate.
While Israel has long showered tax breaks and perks on those returning to the homeland, Jews no longer have to go anywhere near the Dead Sea to reap financial rewards. In Dothan, Ala., a $1 million "family relocation project," offering packages of up to $50,000, has drawn more than 500 applications. In Meridian, Miss., a Reform synagogue has financed $25,000 grants that can be used for any purpose by families who stay at least five years.
Such incentives have even spread to traditional Jewish strongholds on Long Island, places that have long been viewed as desirable in their own right. At Young Israel of Plainview, newlyweds and young families can net $25,000 interest-free loans and free or discounted synagogue membership.
Stephen Savitsky, chairman of the board of the Orthodox Union, an organization representing synagogues, called such enticements a "proven model" for attracting new members that has become more common and more generous over the past decade. "Today, if you don't have a financial program in the greater New York area, then you're probably at a competitive disadvantage," he said.
But some scholars and synagogue members have questioned whether these kinds of efforts — once associated more with dying towns in the Midwest and elsewhere — send the right message.
"I feel much more comfortable in us being able to show the inherent value of living a Jewish life than using financial incentives to draw people in," said David Bryfman, director of a Jewish education program in New York. "Intrinsic motivation will be far more enduring than external incentives."
Certainly, some families have shopped around and tried to negotiate better terms. In Plainview, for instance, one man asked why he should take a loan when he could go elsewhere for a grant that did not have to be repaid.
At the Soloveichiks' new synagogue, Young Israel of Pelham Parkway Jewish Center, Rabbi Shmuel Zuckerman said some people initially balked at offering incentives, saying a synagogue should not have to pay for members. "My response is that may be the case, but it takes some sweetening of the deal," he said.
Zuckerman and others said that the money was simply a way to get people's attention and help those who could not afford to move on their own, but that it was the community that won them over. The money typically comes with many strings: an extensive vetting and interview process, payments spread out over years and a contract requiring that the money be paid back if a family is not active in a synagogue or moves away too soon.
"We're not writing a blank check to buy Jewish families," said Robert Goldsmith, executive director of the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, which is overseeing the Dothan project. "We're building Jewish community for the long term, so it's all about fit."
Goldsmith said five of the six families who had accepted money to move to Dothan since 2008 remained; one left after the father lost his job. Karen Nanning, who arrived in July with her husband, said they asked for, and received, $22,000 to relocate from Augusta, Ga. "It wasn't about the money," Nanning said. "The money was just to cover the expenses we incurred."
Some communities have even reduced their cash awards, relying more on social and cultural benefits as more families have moved in. The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans cut its cash incentive to $1,800 from up to $6,000, but the program, which started in 2007 after Hurricane Katrina, still receives more than 50 inquiries a month, said Michael Weil, the executive director. About 2,000 people have taken the incentives, which include free JDate, job networking and newcomer parties.
Similarly, a New Jersey synagogue that embarked last year on a second housing incentive program after a successful 2007 effort reduced its top award to $20,000 from $36,000 partly because of a conscious decision not to make the amount so high that it would become the deciding factor, said Ben Hoffer, a vice president of Congregation Israel of Springfield.
Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, called these cash incentives a modern version of "Jewish residential social engineering" that has a long role in Jewish history and includes the 19th-century European settlements in what is now Israel financed by the Rothschild banking family. He said these efforts were driven by the communal nature of the religion — at least 10 adult men are required for key prayers and readings in an Orthodox service — and by more recent concerns over intermarriages and lower birthrates among Jews.
"Being Jewish is not an individual, spiritual practice," Cohen said. "There's a free-floating anxiety about the future of Jews and whether there are enough children and grandchildren to continue these Jewish communities."
Young Israel of Pelham Parkway Jewish Center has struggled as the Jewish population in the northeast Bronx has fallen to 7,500 from more than 60,000 in the 1970s, even as it has rebounded elsewhere in New York City, said David Edelstein, a synagogue leader who oversees a Jewish social service agency. By 2009, it could no longer afford to keep its building on Lydig Avenue and sold it for $3.2 million. After moving in with another synagogue, it allocated $225,000 for a new incentive program — called the Growth Initiative — to rebuild its ranks.
In a city with abundant Jewish amenities, it has been a tough sell for a neighborhood with only one kosher restaurant. Despite more than 30 inquiries, no one has applied yet for the $40,000 to help buy a home, and just three families have taken the rental assistance, one of whom voluntarily stopped after being unable to attend services regularly.
But synagogue leaders say the incentive has spread the word that there are still Jews in Pelham Parkway, and re-energized their congregation of about 60 families. The synagogue revived a moribund youth program and now holds a weekly reception after service.
Three young families have even moved in without taking the incentive.
Ariel Lippman, 26, a medical student, said that while he and his wife did not have the time to commit to the synagogue, they were drawn by its efforts to recruit young families. "It's always nice to have peers your own age, or within 10 years, instead of an entire community being your parents' age," he said.