When Phillip and Aviva Angel felt priced out of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and wanted to find a Modern Orthodox community where they could put down permanent roots, they searched the Internet for Jewish housing incentives.
“Being Modern Orthodox and the father of sons, I didn’t feel there were really any options for affordable Orthodox Jewish education in Brooklyn,” said Angel, a self-employed architectural consultant. “We were also looking for a suburb where you can commute affordably to New York City.”
Angel’s brother in Florida, who was also looking for such an incentive, e-mailed him a link to the Web site of the Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon, a Westchester community looking to lure young families.
Before long the Angels, with their three children ages 5 and under, had spent some time in Mount Vernon, applied for the incentive and were awarded a $25,000 stipend toward their eventual purchase of a home. The terms: They must be dues-paying members of the synagogue and stay in the community for 10 years. If the leave they must pay the sum back in full, though no interest will be charged.
“It was a stroke of good fortune,” said Angel. “The stipend lured us. But even if they didn’t have it, we would have wanted to be part of the community.”
The Angels are among four families that have taken advantage of the Fleetwood program, one of many throughout the area offered by synagogues in neighborhoods facing challenges holding onto their Jewish identities. The enticements are being floated to help bolster membership and attract people who value active congregational life.
Interested parties will gather on Sunday at a “discovery day” in Mount Vernon to learn more about the community and program (www.fleetwoodsynagogue.org). The 55-year-old congregation hopes to attract 10 families on a first-come, first-served basis. The first two families will receive $30,000 and the next few $25,000, with the amount declining to $10,000 for the final few who join.
Even with today’s lower housing prices, the stipends, made possible by congregational property sales or other windfalls, generally aren’t enough to severely influence a home sale by bumping buyers into a higher price range or allowing a lower interest rate.
But when all other factors are equal in choosing communities, the stipend can tip the scales. In Fleetwood, the funds may be used for tuition as well as a home purchase or renovation. “The housing incentive is a way to close the deal,” said Fleetwood’s rabbi, Gedalya Berger.
Fleetwood’s co-president, Jonathan Meyer, who came to the neighborhood in 1994, describes it as bucolic and said the shul now has about 80 families, with membership leveling off about a decade ago from a slump that began in the mid-1960s.
“The community is growing, and this program is all about accelerating that growth,” said Meyer.
The Jewish Week reported in November 2007 that the Young Israel branches in North Bellmore and Oceanside on Long Island were offering cash incentives to newcomers. While the Oceanside program is winding down, North Bellmore is still looking for takers.
“We are looking for families that [will] purchase a home within a mile of the shul,” said the Young Israel of Bellmore’s president, Mike Sigal. “We offer $500 per month for the first three years and have this money already set aside to fund the project for the next few years. We ask of them [that they] become active, both husband and wife, in the shul and promoting the community. “
The Young Israel of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, an area that has seen a substantial drop in a once-thriving Jewish population, is set to kick off a similar program this week.
“The Young Israel has adopted a program of $30,000 down-payment assistance, forgiven after five years,” said David Edelstein, director of the Jewish Community Council of Pelham Parkway. Recipients are expected to be active members of the community.
The grants are funded by proceeds from the sale of the Young Israel building to New York City for a public school. The congregation currently rents space in the ballroom of the Pelham Parkway Jewish Center. Also under consideration is a rent subsidy program for prospective Jewish residents.
Financial incentive programs have a spotty track record as a means of stabilizing neighborhoods. They were in effect in the early 1990s here through the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which offered housing loans of up to $10,000 (the standard was $5,000) for those moving to areas considered to have struggling Jewish communities.
Programs encouraged buyers to seek homes in areas like Canarsie in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens. But those loans were phased out by the mid-‘90s.
“Our efforts in housing loans were part of bunch of broader community efforts,” says Shana Novick, executive director of Hebrew Free Loan, who took office around that time. “But the reality is that simply making housing loans was not going to stabilize the neighborhood. You have to support business in the neighborhood. If people are leaving a neighborhood, it’s because of the perception that its Jewish presence is eroding. In order to support the Jewish presence there has to be a more comprehensive plan.”
But in Oceanside, the results speak for themselves. More than a dozen families have taken advantage of the incentive program there.
Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of the Young Israel of Oceanside said his congregation, which has struggled to attract young couples but still has a vibrant membership of 200 families, is at the tail end of a successful incentive program of interest-free loans for qualifying families of up to $30,000. For a larger number of young couples, free legal costs, low mortgage rates and cheap home inspections were also made available.
“Three or four years ago there wasn’t a lot of growth. This was an extensive hook to get people to focus on our community,” said the rabbi. “My sense was that until four or five years ago in the Orthodox Jewish community many people always focused on communities that are very large and didn’t focus on medium-size communities. In a lot of communities people don’t know if you’re here or not here. In our community people know.”
More community building is going on in neighboring Long Beach, where Azi Cutter and his wife, Jessica, were recruited from the Upper West Side with a mission of ramping up Jewish life and identity. While there is no incentive program yet, one is under consideration.
“We started doing more inreach as opposed to outreach,” said Cutter. “It is becoming a much more young, vibrant community as a whole. There are a lot of singles who live her already; they are just not affiliated Jewishly.”
A Massachusetts native, Cutter started coming to Long Beach to surf when he was single, and there met Rabbi Eli Goodman of the Bach Jewish Center, who offered to let him store his surfboard in his home. Cutter later returned with his then girlfriend, Jessica.
“He told me if you get married, come to our community, we would love to have you,” recalls Cutter, who is in his 30s and won’t give his exact age. “We looked at many communities that had some major financial incentives but [Long Beach] had the most potential. Besides, being young people we wanted to live by the beach. … Oceanside’s selling point is that it is 10 minutes from the beach. We live on the beach.”
Before long the couple was helping to organize Purim parties, seders and rooftop Shabbat services overlooking the beach. The community is now considering a program to subsidize rental apartments for the first year or two that young Jewish couples or families live in Long Beach.
“In the summer we have weekends when people come to see the community and we put them in different places where they can stay. For a lot of people in Manhattan, rents are too high.”
Incentive programs have been launched in Alabama and New Jersey, among other places, and the Orthodox Union has been involved in efforts to promote both emerging Jewish communities outside New York and areas that need fresh faces.
Frank Buchweitz, the Orthodox Union’s national director of community services and special projects, coordinates the annual “Emerging Jewish Communities” program, which runs job and home relocation fairs to introduce New York Orthodox residents to life beyond the metropolitan area. “There are lots of communities that people don’t know about. This is a great opportunity to open the doors,” he says. “This creates awareness of the vibrancy of Judaism around the country.”
In both Oceanside and Mount Vernon, the funds for the loans come from sources within the community, such as the sale of synagogue property and dues, but in the case of Mount Vernon, the Westchester office of UJA-Federation of New York helps fund the program’s publicity and advertising efforts.
But not every incentive program can maintain momentum. At the Young Israel of Hollis Hills in Queens, a program to provide an incentive for young Jews died several years ago.
“It wasn’t working very well,” said the shul president, William Davidson.
Steven M., a Bronx resident in his late 30s who asked that his full name not be used to protect his privacy, is about to close on a house in Mount Vernon with his wife and two children, and took advantage of the Fleetwood Synagogue’s incentive program because he was drawn to a “small, friendly, tightly knit community.
“In our opinion small communities work better — there’s a greater sense that everyone is in it together and people are more willing to chip in and lend a helping hand,” said the commercial real estate broker. “People take greater responsibility for ongoing activities in the shul, whereas in a larger community people are more likely to stand back and allow others to take responsibility.”
Steven M. said he was initially skeptical about moving to a community that needed to offer incentives.
“It’s usually a sign that a community is dying out — but what we found was much different,” he said. “We were reassured by the fact that there is a young dynamic rabbi who is a top-notch scholar and very approachable and down to earth. We were also reassured by the fact that there are already a handful of young families with little children already living in the community.”
Steven said he expects the community will continue to grow and is determined to do his share. “You go into it with the understanding that you are not being invited into the community to come and do nothing,” he said. “There is an implicit understanding that you are coming to be an active participant in the community — to take on certain responsibilities, but it helps that you’re just there, too.” n
Westchester correspondent Merri Rosenberg contributed to this report.
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