"Settlers" usually gets you thinking of Israel, but The Atlantic has a curious dispatch in its new issue about settlers of another sort. In Dothan, Alabama, a small Southern town that’s seen its Jewish population drastically dwindle over the last 40 years, a wealthy Jewish businessman is now offering $50,000 to any Jewish family that decides to move to the town. "I tell them there’s running water, that we wear shoes, have a Starbucks," the director of the resettlement program tells The Atlantic.
In 2000, Dothan’s 80-year-old synagogue had 43 families; in 1970, it had 110. The goal of the settlement program is to get 20 new families settled in the peanut capital (Dothan’s main export) over the next five years. Interestingly, the magazine reports that Jewish life is actually doing quite well in the South — but only in major Southern cities, not small towns. Atlanta’s Jewish population, for instance, has increased fourfold since 1980, and there are now 1.1 million Jews total across the entire Southern region (though 655,000 are in Florida, where I’m from, and I couldn’t pull off a Southern drawl if you paid me.)
I wish Dothan the best, but I can’t help but wonder whether handouts are the best way to build a strong, rooted Jewish community. My impression is that modern Jewish communities only survive in cities, and a few large towns, when there’s a large and diverse economy. Economic mobility is a cornerstone of Jewish social history, and not only because they want a chance for financial independence. Only cities can give Jews the cultural diversity that stimulates their private lives too. Where all there is is peanuts and a Starbucks to spend your peanuts’ peanuts on, it doesn’t bode well for the Jews.