Rockland Outreach Facing Demographic, Image Challenges
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Rockland Outreach Facing Demographic, Image Challenges

New push designed to lure young, non-Orthodox families to county, bolster institutions.

West Nyack, N.Y. — Brooklyn-born and Long Island-bred, Monica Feffer moved to Manhattan two decades ago and planned to stay there. “I was an apartment girl,” she said. “I was never going to leave the Upper West Side.”

Five years ago she left.

She and her husband Paul, feeling cramped in their two-bedroom apartment, looked at houses in northern New Jersey but decided that Rockland County was more affordable. Today, for about the same money they spent on their apartment in Manhattan, the couple and their 6-year-old daughter Aliza live on a four-acre wooded lot in Valley Cottage, near the county’s western border. “We live in the equivalent of Central Park,” with views of deer and rabbits from their windows.

“I am totally converted,” she said.

Now, Feffer wants to make other converts.

A veteran of the advertising business, she serves as a volunteer member of Shalom Rockland, a new initiative that seeks to bring more Jews — mostly young families, mostly from the greater New York area — to Rockland.

Shalom Rockland, like initiatives that several synagogues in the New York area and out-of-town Jewish communities (most notably post-Katrina New Orleans, and Dothan, Ala.) have mounted in recent years to attract new members, is designed to boost the declining enrollment figures of the county’s congregations and religious schools. But it is running into a stiff demographic headwind: While the population figures and affiliation rates of such fervently Orthodox enclaves as Monsey and Airmont are steadily increasing, the figures are slowly decreasing for Rockland’s non-Orthodox community; Monsey has a small Modern Orthodox community, but it is greatly outnumbered by haredi Jews, and has negligible influence in the county’s general Jewish community.

The Shalom Rockland project, which grew out of a 68-page guide to the county’s Jewish resources issued last year by the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, recently sponsored a daylong Shalom Rockland festival, featuring promotional booths and entertainment, at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus in West Nyack. Unlike initiatives sponsored in other Jewish communities — usually single synagogues or a coalition of congregations — across the country to attract Jewish residents, Shalom Rockland also featured a strong in-reach component, aimed at the unaffiliated Jews who make up a growing part of the county’s estimated 100,000-member Jewish population.

Shalom Rockland is, as far as is known, the only such countywide Jewish project in the country, and the only one under a federation’s auspices. Though open to the whole Jewish community, the project (shalomrockland.com) concentrates on non-Orthodox Jews. The goal of Shalom Rockland is a denominational balance among the segments of Rockland Jewry.

“We don’t want to lose the diversity within the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Scott Bolton, head of school at the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, a “pluralistic” Conservative institution.

Some 2,000 people, including nearly 100 from New York City, many who came up on free shuttle buses, attended the April event. They were enticed with a variety of incentives like discounted synagogue and JCC membership, reduced tuition at the Gittelman school, a free home warranty insurance policy from the county’s largest realty firm, a complimentary moving kit from a local moving firm and financial breaks from local banks.

Two months after the Shalom Rockland event, no families have committed yet to relocate in Rockland, but “several are looking,” said Paul Adler, vice president of Rand Commercial Services, the realty firm that was a sponsor of the event. And representatives of several Jewish organizations that sponsored informational booths that day say they have received calls from prospective members.

One woman who attended the Shalom Rockland event in April was Laura F., a single mother from northern New Jersey. She said the financial incentives commonly offered by such initiatives as Shalom Rockland may actually serve as a disincentive, leading prospective residents to question why such incentives are needed. “If they have to pay you to go live somewhere, [people may ask], ‘What’s wrong with the place?’” Laura said.

She says she was interested in moving to Rockland with her young daughter, who has moderate special needs requirements. But neither she, nor a few friends who accompanied her to West Nyack that day, are likely to settle in Rockland, she said.

Laura says she had considered moving to Rockland because New York State offers more generous services to special-needs families than New Jersey does. But she decided against making the move, she says, because people familiar with the area told her that services in the public school where she would be likely to place her daughter are undergoing budget cuts, and as a non-Orthodox Jew she would feel out of place in the western Rockland community where she would be likely to settle.

Now, she said, “I’m looking for somewhere else.”

Two friends, a retirement-age couple with grown children, told her they felt put off by the emphasis on young families with school-age children. And another couple from New Jersey, attracted by Rockland County’s low housing prices, is “still up in the air,” she said.

Next week the leaders of Shalom Rockland will meet to consider long-term ways to follow up on the one-day event.

“We need people to move here — to restore our synagogues and schools,” said Diane Sloyer, the federation’s executive director. While census figures show an 8.7 percent increase in the county’s total population from 2000 to 2010, anecdotal conversations with leaders of Jewish organizations indicate that the Jewish population has remained steady but is aging, Sloyer said. The number of young Jews is declining — many move away to attend college and do not return, she said. “The feeling is people aren’t moving here.”

Stephanie Hausner, a lifelong resident of Rockland County who heads the federation’s community outreach division, has witnessed this phenomenon: when she was a student at the Congregation Sons of Israel religious school in Nyack in the 1990s, each grade had 20 students. Today, she said, fewer than 10 students are enrolled in the whole school.

When the time comes to enroll her children in the religious school, she hopes it is “a thriving school. For me, this is very important.”

Membership at most county synagogues, and enrollment in most congregation-affiliated religious schools is down in recent decades (the number of students at the Gittelman school is down to about 190, off by 80 from its peak five years ago), prompting talk of mergers, Sloyer said. The federation’s annual fundraising campaign suffered a loss during the recession of 2008, but has remained steady in the last two years.

Shalom Rockland’s mission is proactive, designed to boost the county’s Jewish community before the viability of synagogues and schools is threatened, Sloyer said.

“It’s not a declining community,” said Rabbi Daniel Pernick of Beth Am Temple in Pearl River. “It’s not hemorrhaging,” said Rabbi David Berkman of the New City Jewish Center.

The county’s chief attractions, its Jewish proponents say, are a low crime rate, good public schools and housing that is far less expensive than in New York City and its closest suburbs.

The smallest county in New York, Rockland is the venue for a wide array of Jewish resources, residents say. Resources — outside of mostly Orthodox Monsey — include a dozen synagogues and independent minyanim, active Hadassah and United Synagogue Youth chapters, a growing Jewish film festival, a popular PJ Library that sends books for free to Jewish children and widely available kosher food.

“It’s very easy to be Jewish here,” said Lori Pitkofsky, who moved to Rockland two years ago.

The Rockland JCC will next year host a Maccabi athletic competition, and is leading an international effort to recognize the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics with a minute of silence at the 2012 Summer Games in London.

The county, sandwiched between Westchester and northern New Jersey, is usually not on the list for New Yorkers seeking a less expensive and more neighborly lifestyle, Pitkofsky said. “People don’t think of Rockland. People think of Westchester.”

Rockland simply lacks Westchester’s panache, she said.

Rockland Jews say the effort to increase the Jewish population faces a few image problems: of an “upstate” place with long commuting times, as a largely haredi Jewish community, i.e., Monsey.

Wrong on all counts, Rockland Jews say.

People unfamiliar with the state’s geography “think Rockland is very far away,” said Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, associate spiritual leader at the Orangetown Jewish Center.

“People refer to Rockland as ‘upstate’ — and we’re not,” Pitkofsky said. “We’re a New York City suburb.”

Driving time to Manhattan from most places in Rockland County is 35 to 45 minutes, comparable to times from the outer boroughs and nearby suburbs, Rockland Jews boast.

“It’s close enough” to Manhattan, Rabbi Pernick said, “but also far enough” to avoid the city’s congestion.

Within the county, the farthest corner can be reached by car in 20 minutes, making driving to schools or shopping easy, a visitor hears. “Nothing is far in Rockland,” Rabbi Bolton said. “It’s close to everything.”

And Rockland’s reputation as a mostly haredi enclave is also inaccurate. “There are Jews in Valley Cottage. There are Jews in Pearl River. There are Jews in West Nyack,” said Paul Adler, the real estate agent. “It’s not just Monsey.”

“I don’t feel uncomfortable anywhere” in Rockland, said Monica Feffer, who is not Orthodox and rarely crosses paths with haredi Jews there. “It’s like two separate parts of Rockland County.”

She and her husband have no second thoughts about their decision to leave Manhattan for Rockland, she says. “Life is so much easier up here. It’s inconceivable that I would raise my daughter on the Upper West Side.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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