Planting Seeds: Orthodox Union Job Fair Links to Emerging Communities

Planting Seeds: Orthodox Union Job Fair Links to Emerging Communities

Dov Gardin, 30, married, and a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, worked for nearly two years as a financial analyst for a Wall Street investment firm. But he became a casualty of the country’s financial meltdown last November, like most of his colleagues at the firm, and now he’s a part-time teacher for an online college.

The teaching job, he says, "is more something to keep my mind busy" than it is for the income – far less than what he was making on Wall Street. "If my wife wasn’t working," he adds, "we wouldn’t really be able to afford" rent on their small, one-bedroom apartment.

Gardin’s search for a new job and his interest in more affordable housing are two of the factors that led the couple to the Orthodox Union’s second "Emerging Communities Fair," he said while standing next to his wife, Miriam, also 30.

The fair, hosted Sunday by the Lander College for Women in Manhattan, brought together local families and representatives of 22 Orthodox communities around the country, some as close as Stony Brook, N.Y., and Stamford, Conn., and others as far AWAY as Dallas, Denver, New Orleans and San Francisco. More than 1,000 people attended Sunday’s fair, 200 more than attended the organization’s first such event, in April 2008, according to an OU spokesman.

In addition to the numbers, what differed this time around was an increased focus on jobs, said Stephen Stavitsky, president of the OU. Last year’s fair, he added, focused more on quality-of-life issues, including the affordability of an Orthodox lifestyle.

In fact, OU officials required communities that wanted to participate in this year’s fair to arrive at the event with job listings, said Frank Buchweitz, the organization’s national director of community services and special projects. That was on top of five other criteria for communities to be considered for the fair: 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.

Savitsky’s brainchild, the fairs are meant to help Orthodox families in New York City and its suburbs who feel as if they’re being priced out of the area, one of the country’s most expensive regions. The events are also designed to aid smaller Orthodox communities, many of which are trying to woo new members as a means of strengthening their institutions and ensuring their futures.

Affordability is certainly an issue for many of those who attended the fair, which drew young couples, many with infants and toddlers; middle-aged and older families; Modern Orthodox Jews; and fervently Orthodox Jews.

The issue wasn’t far from the minds of Sara and Jesse Asher, doctoral students in their late 20s who came to the fair with their two daughters, Channa, 1, and Noa Malka, 3. The Ashers currently live in Kew Gardens, Queens, one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, according to Sara, who spent much of her time on a carpeted floor, playing with her children, as Jesse went from booth to booth.

And jobs are an issue for Matthew L. Kessler, 43, the owner and director of Peninsula Funeral Service in Hollis, Queens, who visited "pretty much" every booth while attending the fair. Kessler’s industry is changing rapidly as more and more people choose cremation over traditional funerals, he said, prompting him to look for work in transportation management, a field he has studied.

But many of those attending the fair said their attraction to smaller communities also revolved around quality-of-life issues.

"We want to be more of an essential part of the community," said Sara Asher, who studies psychology, as does her husband.

The Gardins, meanwhile, are looking for a slower space and more space than New York offers, said Dov Gardin. He added that he and his wife, Miriam, are hoping to find a community that’s open to different levels of observance, reflecting his Modern Orthodox upbringing and her Conservative upbringing.

Leaders of the OU know of about two-dozen families who have moved to communities outside of New York as result of attending last year’s fair or of checking the organization’s Web site, which includes information on communities across the country, said Stephen Steiner, an OU spokesman.

But the success of the OU’s efforts can’t be measured by looking at how many people have moved already, Buchweitz said, surveying the crowd at this year’s fair. Instead, he said, the "Emerging Communities" fairs are "planting seeds. You won’t see fruit for another couple of years, but the seeds are sown." n

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