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Hello, Columbus

Hello, Columbus

Moshe and Adina Tyberg, Flatbush residents in their mid-30s, are living in a two-bedroom apartment with five young children.

“As you can imagine,” the father says, the atmosphere “isn’t very conducive to raising kids,” but he and his wife are unable to afford a larger home in Brooklyn. As a result, both Moshe, a human-resources professional, and Adina, an occupational therapist, are ready to move beyond the New York area, where they hope to find a better quality of life.

That desire is becoming more and more widespread among Orthodox families living in New York City and its suburbs, especially young couples that are feeling squeezed financially, say officials of the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University. Both institutions are now helping those families, as well as the small Orthodox communities seeking to woo them.

Indeed, more than 650 people flocked to New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel on Sunday to attend a daylong fair titled “The Emerging Communities Showcase.” Sponsored by the OU, the umbrella organization for more than 1,000 Orthodox synagogues, the fair brought together local families, including the Tybergs, and representatives from 15 communities, some from as far as Texas, California and the western provinces of Canada.

In a far different event, reflecting the sponsor’s academic nature, YU’s Center for the Jewish Future brought together 50 young, Modern Orthodox couples, lay leaders from eight communities, and rabbis, academics and marketing experts for a forum the previous weekend. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, CJF’s dean, described the gathering as the culmination of an intensive study conducted among focus groups throughout the tri-state area and Philadelphia on the needs and desires of 100 young families. The forum enabled CJF to share its findings with the eight communities before distributing the results to a wider audience on the Web.

Although the OU’s fair and YU’s program, the Community Growth Initiative, share the same motivation — a desire to assist both families and communities — the ventures are “totally different” from each other, Rabbi Brander said. “One’s a fair and one’s a laboratory,” the dean said, adding that he and his colleagues “wanted to teach communities how to sell themselves and young couples how to ask the appropriate questions.”

The 15 communities represented at the OU fair, none of which are in the New York area, included Dallas, Houston, Denver, Memphis and New Orleans, as well as two in Canada — Vancouver and Edmonton. All of them had to meet five criteria before being considered for the fair, said Stephen Savitsky, the OU’s president — at least one synagogue affiliated with the OU, a Jewish day school or yeshiva, a mikveh, a Judaica store and the availability of kosher food.

But according to YU, which has shared its data with the OU, the young couples involved in its study have a different set of considerations. In ranking what they need from a community, their highest consideration was the community’s hashkafa, or Jewish outlook, followed by the quality of Jewish education, affordable housing, job opportunities and the presence of other young couples. Much lower on the scale were the presence of a mikveh, rabbinic leadership and kosher restaurants.

For the Tybergs, among the hundreds of people at the OU fair, affordable housing ranked as their No. 1 concern, reflecting the feelings of many young families. Median home prices in the New York area have more than doubled in the past decade, from $201,800 in 1997 to $527,300 last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Moreover, the burden falls more heavily on Orthodox Jews than other members of the Jewish community, given the expenses of keeping a kosher home and sending children to a Jewish day school.

“I work full time, my wife works full time, and we’re living from paycheck to paycheck,” said Moshe Tyberg, whose two oldest children, 5 and 7, are enrolled in yeshivot. His father, a mashgiach for Empire Chicken, “was able to buy a home with a lot less money” and with seven children to support, Tyberg said, “housing has become unaffordable for couples without affluent parents.”

The cities holding special appeal for Tyberg included Columbus, Ohio, one of four communities represented at the OU fair and in the YU study — and his interest surely delighted Rabbi Howard Zack, the spiritual leader of one of the city’s three Orthodox synagogues.

Rabbi Zack described the Orthodox community in Columbus as being “on the tipping point” — on the verge, that is, between being a relatively small enclave, able to cater to the basic needs of its members, and a larger, more vibrant population, confident of its own future. All it needs to do, he believes, is to increase the percentage of its population between the ages of 25 and 40 from 15 percent, the current level, to around 30 percent.

The city currently has 22,000 Jewish residents, including 500 families affiliated with an Orthodox shul, Rabbi Zack said. But the Orthodox community’s largest demographic are couples between 40 and 65 — too old “to sustain the next generation of growth,” he added.

Part of the rabbi’s pitch — similar to those of other communities at the fair — is that a smaller city is the ideal place in which to raise a family. The children in Columbus are “nicer” than those in many metropolitan areas, the rabbi said, adding that their involvement in the community is valued much more highly.

“The bottom line is that in a metropolitan area, you don’t matter as much,” Rabbi Zack continued. A new couple walking into “the average New York-area synagogue” won’t be greeted by many people, but in a Columbus synagogue, “you’d be smothered with attention.”

The OU fair drew plenty of young couples, as evidenced by the huge number of strollers at the event, but it also attracted middle-aged families and retirees, many of them looking for a better quality of life. And whatever their reaction to pitches like Rabbi Zack’s, some of the families were clearly enticed by the chance to help shape and build a new community.

“You can always make an impact on a one-on-one level in New York,” said Abraham Finkelstein, standing in the ballroom with his wife, Tobey, and their year-old son, Chanan Zev. But it’s easier to make an impact — and on a more collective level — in a smaller community, said Finkelstein, 31, an acupuncturist and a disc jockey on a Web-based Jewish radio station.

In many cases, though, families attending the event seemed a long way from moving outside the area. One man, a 29-year-old neurology resident who came to the fair with his wife and year-old son, asked to remain anonymous — “or else I’d have a family crisis.” His parents, he added, know that he and his wife are interested in moving, but “they want their kids to be around, like any good parents. They want to see their grandchildren.”

The fair, which the OU may be repeating in New York and other cities, is the brainchild of Savitsky, the OU president, who said he thought of the idea as he traveled around the country, learning of the needs of small communities. At the same time, he added, he believed the program would help young couples, many of whom are being priced out of New York.

Savitsky, a resident of Hewlett, L.I., said the OU’s mission, as a national organization, is to help all of its synagogues, many of which are outside the New York area. He also believes that helping local families move elsewhere wouldn’t hurt congregations in this area.

“We’re talking about very small numbers of people,” Savitsky said. “If 200 families moved from New York as a result of this fair, it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket for New York. But it would be a tremendous boost for these [smaller] communities.”
Savitsky’s views were echoed by two area rabbis, both of whom said they would measure the loss of any congregants against other considerations.

“If there was a mass exodus from the shuls, then, of course, there’d be a rise of concern,” said Rabbi Dovid Weinberger of the Shaaray Tefila Congregation in Lawrence, N.Y. “But this is facing realities,” he added. A rabbi “should be happy” when any congregants, “instead of suffering and facing difficulty,” are able to reverse their fortunes elsewhere.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of the Ahavath Israel Congregation in Englewood, N.J., said any rabbi “has to balance the needs of his own community with the needs of the Jewish world, at large, and the needs of individuals who may be struggling. … You have to look at it in terms of the greater good.”

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