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.
5 thoughts on “The Jews of Dothan”
It’s too hot down there. 🙂
“$50,000 per family to attract more Jews to Dothan. ”
Contact Chabad. The supply will be unlimited
Fascinating entry. My family was one of only three Jewish families when we moved to Findlay, Ohio, in the 1970s. My brothers and I ended up thus being the only Jews in our rural high school, in a school system outside of the Findlay schools line.
What struck me in reading your blog was the notion that Jews moving to a small town could be a way of reintroducing Christian communities to what it means to be Jewish today.
From my experiences growing up, I got very little sense that our Christian community wanted to know what it meant to be Jewish. Our community at the time was very insular. Community life for most people revolved around church, Christian youth groups, and the like.
There was no interest in our traditions or holidays from my peers and their families. If anything, many Christians seemed more interested in figuring out how they could get us to become Christians.
We weren’t in the South. We were in the midwest. And one day, we did wake up to see swastikas etched in soap and possibly wax on our windows. Would more Jews in the town lead to less ostracism and more understanding? I don’t know.
I’ll be interested to see if any Jews respond to Larry Blumberg’s offer. Having lived in a small town in the midwest and even big cities in the South, I prefer where I am now – New England – to live easily as a Jew and yet also meet people from many different religions and cultures.
I think times are different now and the youth seem to want to know and understand more.
@ Linda– Actually, it seems as though several Jewish families have taken Larry Blumberg up on his offer and seem (at least for the moment) to be happy in Dothan. One of the families quoted in the NYTimes article said that while there may be religious differences, that they have similar political leanings and so are finding common ground that way.
As for Christian interest in Judaism, I definitely agree that it takes more than simply living in a town as Jews to encourage outside interest in Jewish life. However, the Rabbi in Dothan mentioned that many of her Christian neighbors dropped into the synagogue because they were curious about her and about the synagogue. While much of their interested was driven by Jesus and how his life is intertwined with that of Judaism, she saw it as an opportunity to broaden the discussion and introduce them to contemporary Judaism. So, perhaps this could result in a more open and warm experience between the communities.