Orthodox communities try to sell themselves to fairgoers overwhelmed by choices.
When Yehuda and Tova Miller walked into the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Communities Fair last Sunday, they saw the same scene that greeted the more than 1,000 other people who attended the event: a cavernous room in which six rows of tables were set up.
At each of the 41 tables were representatives of a U.S. Orthodox community seeking to interest Jewish New Yorkers in moving there and making it their home. A visit to any of those tables meant being plied with flyers, booklets and verbal pitches describing the community and the benefits offered there.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by so much variety and so many options,” said Yehuda Miller, who walked from table to table with a 5-month-old girl strapped to his chest.
The variety made it difficult to narrow things down, said Miller, 27, who’s also the father of other young children. But the Millers were able to focus on three communities that had already scheduled Shabbaton weekends for New Yorkers who wanted to experience those towns.
A current resident of Teaneck, N.J., Miller said he and his wife “are not about to move anywhere [immediately], but we feel that in the next couple of years, it would be time to make a move.”
The fair, held in Lower Manhattan, was the OU’s fourth such event since 2008, said Rabbi Judah Isaacs, the organization’s director of community engagement.
Rabbi Isaacs said the key reason for these fairs, organized by his department, is to help members of the Orthodox community who are struggling with the high cost of living in New York and who might fare better elsewhere. The burden of living in New York is especially heavy for Orthodox Jews, given the expenses of kosher food and day-school tuition, noted the rabbi, whose organization is the umbrella group for hundreds of Orthodox synagogues.
The other objective is to help Orthodox communities outside of New York that are seeking to grow, Rabbi Isaacs said. The 41 communities at this year’s fair — a jump over previous years — included some not far from New York, such as Fair Lawn, Livingston and Elizabeth, all in New Jersey, and various suburbs of Philadelphia. But most — like Denver, Louisville, Richmond, Va., and Columbus, Ohio — are further away. Since the OU’s previous community fair, in 2011, 19 families have moved to communities outside of New York, most of them to Cherry Hill, N.J.
But the fair’s growth has meant that communities attending the fair have had to work harder to distinguish themselves from the others.
Louisville’s table, for instance, included a Louisville Sluggers baseball bat, encased in glass, and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. Representatives from Portland, Ore., raffled off a pair of Nike sneakers, an indication that Nike is based in the city. The display from Providence included a replica of a lighthouse with a bright, twirling light on the top. Seattle’s table included a poster listing the scores of companies headquartered in the city, including Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon.com, and Fair Lawn’s representatives offered free cookies from Zadie’s Kosher Bake Shop.
Poking fun at those displays, Rabbi Yakov Fisch of Jacksonville, Fla., said his community’s table “was less flash and more of substance. … I think it’s reflective of our community,” he added, describing Jacksonville as “humble and low-key.”
More often than not, though, the pitches sounded the same, with representatives from each community describing their area as warm, affordable and being the type of place in which members can make a difference.
Fred Komarow, representing Allentown, Pa., acknowledged that “there’s a common thread” among all of the communities at the fair. “But each one is different in and of itself,” he said. “Fair Lawn may be a change in the quality of life for someone living in Borough Park, but it’s not going to compare to Allentown.
Whether or not Komarow is right on that score, each community strived in some way to emphasize how unique it was. Each of the representatives for Richmond, for instance, wore a button boasting about the free tuition available to newcomers at the community’s Jewish day school, the result of a state program. On top of that, said Don Cantor, a 22-year-old who was born and raised in Richmond, the city “is Southern, which is a selling point to me.” It means a relaxed, friendly lifestyle and a particular warmth, he added.
The bottom line is that there has to be a fit between the family and the community, said Alisa Panitch, a lawyer from Cherry Hill representing her town. Many of the families moving to Cherry Hill have been drawn to the town because it offers access to several urban areas while giving them a “wholesome environment” in which to raise children, she said.
As for how communities at the fair could translate their presence into new members, Panitch emphasized the importance of follow-up.
“This is a springboard for future dialogue,” she said, adding that no family at the fair is ready to make an immediate decision. “Everybody was overwhelmed, and we were overwhelmed, too.” She added that “the more serious families fill out a fact sheet about themselves and their interests that will enable us to help them.”
As the communities vied for attention, one observer at the fair — there because his daughter works for the OU and helped staff the event — offered a unique perspective on what he experienced.
Visiting from Cleveland, Efraim Tabak, 57, said he came to the United States 37 years ago from Hungary, which, like other parts of Europe, isn’t known for always being hospitable to Jews.
“Coming from a continent where every few decades Jews were expelled, it was nice to see that are communities which are actually looking for Jews,” he said. “Even if you’re just looking around” — rather than seeking to move — “it was refreshing to have the feeling that, for once, you’re not being rejected.”
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