When Linda Russ and her husband, Len, decided to move out of Manhattan, they were looking for a backyard, more space and — above all — freedom from hefty private-school tuition bills.
“We had no intention of moving to Connecticut and sending our children to private school,” recalls Linda with a laugh. But just to pacify her father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, the couple visited Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, a 53-year-old institution that caters to Jews of all backgrounds.
And before they knew it, the Russes were settled in Westport and paying tuition again: they sent both their children to Bi-Cultural, which goes through eighth grade. “It was the best decision we could have made,” reflected Linda 15 years later. “I had no idea that there was this kind of Jewish community up here.”
The Russes discovered what increasing numbers of New York families are learning: Connecticut is more than pretty rural landscapes, good public schools and spacious Colonial-style houses. It is also a hotbed of Jewish activity, with more and more Jews moving to Fairfield County every year, and high-profile Jewish institutions that, like Bi-Cultural, have become a draw in themselves.
Russ, a public relations specialist, now serves on the school’s executive board and is involved with the local federation and the 425-member Conservative Temple in Westport. “The biggest surprise for us was the size of the community here,” said Russ, alluding to New England’s enduring reputation as religiously apathetic. “There are a lot of people who are really interested in maintaining their Jewishness.”
That Jewishness, according to many who live here, is diverse and inclusive. While some areas of the metro region tend strongly toward one denomination or another, the county offers an array of thriving congregations and havurim that span the denominational spectrum, with a popular Jewish Community Center in Stamford and Orthodox communities concentrated in Stamford, Fairfield, Westport, and Greenwich. Michael Feldstein, who started the Committee for the Advancement of Modern Orthodoxy in Stamford a year ago, said the organization has already attracted more than a dozen Orthodox couples to the city.
“From a Jewish perspective, the synagogues tend to be on the more liberal side of their movements than shuls in most New York suburbs,” wrote Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Stamford’s Temple Beth El, a Conservative egalitarian shul, in an e-mail message. “For those coming from progressive enclaves like the Upper West Side or Tribeca, what we offer might feel closer to what people are used to than synagogues in older suburbs.”
In recent years, Rabbi Hammerman has welcomed a steady stream of newcomers, mostly New Yorkers, to his 600-family congregation. Like most transplants, the arrivals tend to be drawn by the county’s relatively lower taxes — versus Westchester or Long Island — and by a peculiarly Connecticut balance of urban, suburban and rural. “We are literally 40 minutes nonstop from Grand Central, but have the feel of a New England farm village, a quaint coastal town, a bustling commercial center and a lovely montage of ethnic neighborhoods, all in one,” rhapsodized the rabbi.
Indeed, many Connecticut residents say they like the diversity of landscapes with proximity to New York City. Towns like Greenwich, Weston, Darien and New Canaan are more rural, with rolling green fields punctuated by stonewalls and gracious mansions. While many of those mansions are worth eight figures, Connecticut combines its wealth with a Yankee distaste for pretension, and consumption tends to be lower-key here than in Westchester.
Still, shopping is abundant along the Post Road, in the picturesque downtowns of Greenwich and Westport, and at shopping malls in Stamford and Trumbull. The Long Island Sound shoreline offers numerous public beaches and opportunities for boating and water sports.
For many Jewish families like the Russes, though, the school selection is paramount. Fairfield County has some of the region’s best-regarded public schools, as well as access to an array of private, secular and Jewish day schools, both in the county itself and over the state line in Westchester and Riverdale. Bi-Cultural Day School, a Modern Orthodox-affiliated institution with 400 students, in many ways typifies the easygoing and inclusive spirit of Connecticut Judaism: only about a quarter of its students come from Orthodox homes, according to Headmaster Dr. Gerald Kirshenbaum, while about a third are Conservative, 15 percent are Reform and up to a quarter come from unaffiliated Jewish homes.
The school has won widespread recognition for its academics, with programs such as the longitudinal English and Hebrew writing assessments that track students’ progress in both languages over the years. Bi-Cultural is well known for its eighth-grade Israel trip, in which students spend three weeks visiting historical sites in Jerusalem, deep sea diving with a biologist off Eilat and then integrating that knowledge into Bible and ecology curricula back home. This year, Dr. Kirshenbaum said, there is an increased emphasis on the arts program: year-long residencies with the Newburger Museum in Purchase and Lincoln Center mean that students study art and music with arts professionals, giving them context for their eventual opera and art outings.
The Westchester-Fairfield Hebrew Academy is a thriving newer alternative. It opened in 1997 as the county’s only officially pluralistic day school, meaning it is not affiliated with any denomination. “People tend to be drawn by the inclusive orientation,” said Head of School Nora Anderson, noting that the 230 students in kindergarten through eighth grade represent diverse cultural backgrounds. “We really celebrate everybody and emphasize individuality.”
Jewish high school alternatives are not as numerous. The long-planned, pluralistic Jewish High School of Connecticut is scheduled to open this fall with ninth and tenth grades in Bridgeport, but for now many observant parents send their children across the state line to SAR Academy in Riverdale or Ramaz in Manhattan, among others.
Many Fairfield County residents commute to New York City or Westchester, but there are plenty of jobs locally, as well. Stamford is the county’s largest city and its business center; its glittering office towers house the headquarters of Pitney Bowes, Xerox and other corporations. It is also a cultural nexus, home to the Connecticut Grand Opera, the Stamford Symphony, Stamford Theater Works and the Stamford Center for the Arts. In the last two decades, the downtowns of Stamford and nearby Norwalk, a slightly smaller city, have undergone successful revitalizations, with a vibrant street life well into the evenings.
Stamford is also probably the most popular destination for young professionals, given its wide range of housing options and speedy commute. An express Metro-North train goes directly from Stamford to Grand Central at rush hours; most nearby towns take a bit longer on local trains along the New Haven line, and Interstate Highway 95 connects the region with New York City and New Haven.
While expensive single-family homes predominate elsewhere in the county, Stamford has a variety of high-rise apartment buildings and townhouse complexes. Real estate agent Jodi Boxer estimates that a one-bedroom can rent for as little as $1,500 a month and a two-bedroom for around $1,800, making Stamford an accessible entry point for young adults. Single-family “starter” homes can be had for around $450,000 to $600,000.
“In terms of the commute and the prices, Stamford probably has the best all-around value,” said Boxer, who has lived here since 1983 and often works with Orthodox buyers. Fairfield, a graceful suburb with a quaint downtown, is another town with gentler prices.
Fairfield County is hardly cheap, of course, but for families like the Russes, it is worth the price. Even though they ended up paying tuition — the very thing they left Manhattan to avoid — “it is still much less than we would be paying in New York,” said Linda Russ. “And we have a lot more closet space.”